How to Navigate Your Relationship With a Workplace Frenemy

UPDATED: February 2, 2023
PUBLISHED: February 2, 2023
work frenemies talking about project

Our school days are in the rearview mirror (for most of us). But that doesn’t mean that playground tiffs and faux friendships are also firmly in the past. Coming to a Zoom meeting or cubicle near you: your work frenemy.

Full of good cheer and an inviting smile (so that you’ll share your thoughts in confidence), you’re taken with them until you discover they spilled your secrets, took credit for a project you authored or pointed a scolding finger at you, even if it should be wagged in their direction. Quite simply, these individuals occupy that ambiguous middle ground between friend and enemy, and you should not trust them. But you still have to work with them.

Here are some tips on how to keep the drama to a minimum, using the stress of your work frenemy’s actions to propel you toward greater workplace success.

Emphasize similarity, vulnerability and community

Eric Barker, author of Plays Well with Others: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Relationships Is (Mostly) Wrong, noted to CNBC that there are three things you can do to cope when you’re in a frenemy situation: emphasize similarity, vulnerability and community. 

If you’re trying to befriend someone, he suggests playing up what you have in common. 

“The more narcissistic tendencies a person has, the better this works,” Barker explains. 

According to the article, “A narcissist loves themselves more than anyone so if you emphasize a similarity, it’s harder for them to dislike you.”

The next tip is tough for many people, in or out of the workplace: showing vulnerability. Telling someone you don’t like the way they’ve been treating you may feel awkward. However, it can also pave the way for a better working relationship.

“Showing anger will backfire, but disappointment is surprisingly effective. Next time the jerk says something jerky respond: ‘That hurt my feelings. Is that what you intended?’” Barker notes. “If the person has any empathy, they will backpedal and rethink their actions,” 

And have you ever heard the expression, “You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar?” A work frenemy might treat you better after you express empathy for them, emphasizing the feeling of community. According to the article, “Someone who doesn’t think about what they say or how their actions are affecting other people might not be used to receiving empathy themselves.”

Keep your lips zipped around work frenemies

It’s natural to want to vent work frustrations. But do so with the people in your life you already trust: family members and friends! Trust is something that has to be built up over time. If you think there’s a possibility someone at work could spill, it’s best not to give them any source material.

Think of it like this: whatever you tell one person, be it a boss or colleague, has the potential to be broadly shared. So whatever you repeat to someone, make sure you’d be okay with them repeating it to many more.

How can a work frenemy benefit you?

In an ideal world, you’d save the drama for your Netflix favorites, but you don’t have complete control over who you work with. It’s very likely that your path will cross with a frenemy. Although you’d never willingly select them to be a part of your friend network, you must work with them. You can choose, however, to view work frenemies in a new light by understanding that in addition to the stress they raise, they also:

1. Force you to raise your game

Work frenemies are often born from competition. Perhaps a colleague who is nice to your face has done some unsavory things toward you because they’re trying to elevate themselves or chase a certain promotion. You don’t have to stoop to their level, but you could consider leveling up your own contributions. They won’t be trying to climb over you if they can’t catch up to you.

2. Keep you on the lookout

This article details how “that slight spark of paranoia” that work frenemies can ignite isn’t such a bad thing. It pushes you to be more conscientious in both the work you’re producing (reading the PowerPoint presentation out loud a second time to ensure there are no errors, for example) and the strategic guidance you’re offering (carefully considering your approach, incorporating a response to possible objections before they’re even raised). The extra care will only serve to further bolster your reputation.

3. Make you comfortable with future challenges

While different frenemies bring different issues to bear, the common theme is that through working with them, you’ll become more practiced in how to navigate relationships. Do you have to work with a vendor who appears to be difficult? You can emphasize your similarities. Or have your client relations become strained? You can express empathy for them and level up your own game so you’re producing even better work.

And when a coworker asks how you really feel about your boss assigning you a new project, you’ll know to keep things banal and save your venting for after work.

Photo by fizkes/Shutterstock

Jill McDonnell is a Chicago-based content writer and communications professional. She has a bachelor's degree in magazine journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia and a master's degree in public relations and advertising from DePaul University. She is currently at work on a psychological thriller novel.