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You Have a Nemesis at Work, and It’s Not Who You Think It Is

As social creatures, we’re excellent at judging when people actually like us. That is, when asked to identify who our real friends are, we almost never miss. That’s because friends are usually transparent about their shared affinity for each other, and these relationships make life richer, especially in the workplace, where strong social bonds between co-workers have been tied to higher team morale, better individual and group performance, promotions and raises and even having innovative ideas.

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Strangely enough, though, we’re not nearly as good at identifying our rivals in the office. We’re oblivious to the co-workers who covertly talk shit about us, and the colleagues we do consider rivals usually aren’t the ones actually gunning for our jobs, according to Noah Eisenkraft, professor of organizational behavior at the University of North Carolina and co-author of a new study on the subject.

“We know who our friends are — we think those relationships are reciprocal, and they often are,” Eisenkraft says. “But for rivalries, we think we’re competing against someone, but often it’s not reciprocated.” Translation: Your supposed nemesis typically doesn’t think twice about you.

It’s similar to how, in sports, lesser teams always consider more successful teams to be their rival, while the better team doesn’t give the lesser team any thought.

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Growing up a fan of the University of Illinois football team, I always considered Michigan to be our rival. As I got older, however, I discovered that Michigan thinks nothing of the lowly Illini — Michigan’s rival is Ohio State, the only other team to consistently vie with the Wolverines for Big Ten supremacy. “That happens all the time,” Eisenkraft says.

This obliviousness is due to the difference in status between the two parties. Friendships involve open communication and occur between people with similar interests and stations in life. On the flip side, we tend to form rivalries with people above us on the socioeconomic or professional ladder, which means we tend to disguise our animosity toward them, acting friendly but secretly competing against them.

Eisenkraft’s study stems from pre-existing research in a field known as “dyadic meta-accuracy,” or in layman’s terms: Thinking about how other people think about you. The research shows that if you believe people generally consider you smart or kind, odds are you’re right. “But we realized there was a blind spot,” Eisenkraft says. “We hadn’t explored [this research] in terms of negative relationships — ones marked by competition and rivalry.”

And so, Eisenkraft went off to observe two groups of peers: (1) car salesmen, who know they compete against each other for customers; and (2) students working together on a group project, where interpersonal competition is less overt. He found people in both groups often misjudged who their actual rivals were.

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Such confusion can have serious negative consequences for workers. Misidentifying someone as a rival can cause you to shut that person out and miss out on a potentially rewarding professional and personal relationship. “On the other hand, if you think this person is being nice to you, but they’re really undermining you behind your back, that can be detrimental for your career,” Eisenkraft says.

Eisenkraft doesn’t want his findings to cause paranoia, though. The wrong reaction is to suddenly suspect every one of your coworkers is a Judas secretly plotting your professional demise.

Instead, he explains, the findings should serve as motivation to create stronger connections with your colleagues. Generally, the more connected you are to someone, the more honest and transparent you are with each other. So if you’re closely bonded with your co-workers, you can more accurately tell which of them really has your back, and who’s a conniving snake.

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A strong social network at work also will act as a safeguard against someone making a move against you without your knowledge. When you have friends throughout an organization, they’ll alert you to what other co-workers really think about you, Eisenkraft says. (The study didn’t explore specific strategies for better recognizing adversarial relationships, but Eisenkraft hopes to investigate that in subsequent research.)

In other words, don’t walk around the office on high alert, suspecting everyone is out to get you. Understand that your perceptions in that regard are probably wrong, question them and harbor positive relationships as best you can (at least until Eisenkraft figures out the key to sussing out your nemesis).

Meanwhile, bosses should be careful about building a culture that breeds nemeses. “If you have a star employee you’re praising all the time, you’re encouraging people to compete against them,” Eisenkraft says. “You might think, I’m just rewarding good work. But by giving them Employee of the Month, you just created 17 rivals for that person.”