How Enemies Make Better Allies than Frenemies

Our best allies

There are all kinds of ways we can make changes to our jobs and lives to make them more meaningful and motivating, and still make us more effective. Intuitively, we know that going with our flow, using our strengths to work on things we are suited for is the best way to make an impact.

But we often have a hard time figuring out where to start claiming that freedom.

The first step in developing originality is to recognize the leading role our environment plays in finding good ideas, along with facilitating healthy dynamics as we explore new domains while navigating getting the task at hand done. This means we should pay attention to the kind of situations, context, and people we welcome in our lives.

We are aware that negativity saps our energy, and we're used to thinking linearly between positive and negative. But that is not the case.  In Originals: How Non Conformists Rule the World Adam Grant provides evidence that we can benefit greatly from a three-dimensional understanding of the two.

“Along with purely positive and wholly negative relationships, we can have connections that are both positive and negative,” he says. “Psychologists call them ambivalent relationships. You might know then as frenemies — people who sometimes support you and sometimes undermine you.”

Duplicity affects our stress levels and impairs our ability to think clearly and sort things out. Says Grant:

To discover the most effective way to handle ambivalent relationships, Michael Duffy, a management professor at the University of Minnesota, led a study surveying police officers on how often they were undermined and supported by their closest coworker, as well as their levels of stress and absence from work. Not surprisingly, negative relationships were stressful. When officers felt undermined by their closest coworker, they were less committed, took more unauthorized breaks, and were absent from work more often.

What happened when the undermining colleague was also supportive at times? Things didn't get better; they got worse. Being undermined and supported by the same person meant even lower commitment and more work missed.

It's actually better to be undermined by one person and supported by another consistently — the support providing a buffer to the stress. Knowing where we stand is better than feeling our ground unpredictably shaky. 

Negative relationships are unpleasant, but they're predictable: if a colleague consistently undermines you, you can keep your distance and expect the worse. But when you're dealing with an ambivalent relationship, you're constantly on guard, grappling with questions about when that person can actually be trusted. As Duffy's team explains, “it takes more emotional energy and coping resources to deal with individuals who are inconsistent.”

Ambivalent relationships are unhealthier than negative ones. In groundbreaking research, Bert Uchino found that interactions with people who are ambivalent are more harmful, leading to higher stress levels, depression, and burn out.

Making the case for engaging detractors

It turns out our best allies are our former enemies. This is because when we are able to come to terms with someone who started out against us and convert them to our way of thinking, we benefit more from their contrarian perspective in two ways.

First, we need to search more deeply for the reasons we hold a certain position to make a convincing argument. Second, because of the critical nature of our relationship, we are less prone to taking their support for granted once we have it. Psychology Elliot Aronson who found that “we're often more sensitive to gains and losses in esteem than in the level of esteem itself.” Says Grant:

When someone always supports us, we take it for granted — and can discount it. But we regard someone who began as a rival and then became an enthusiastic supporter as an authentic advocate. “A person whose liking for us increases over time will be liked better than one who has always liked us,” Aronson explains. “We find it more rewarding when someone's initially negative feelings toward us gradually become positive than if that person's feelings for us were entirely positive all along.”

This is important also because the feeling is mutual.

While we'll have an especially strong affinity toward our converted rivals, will they feel the same way toward us? Yes — this is the second advantage of converting resisters. To like us, they have to work especially hard to overcome their initial negative impressions, telling themselves, I must have been wrong about that person. Moving forward, to avoid the cognitive dissonance of changing their minds yet again, they'll be especially motivated to maintain a positive relationship.

This is a strong reason why companies should consider engaging detractors. Outspoken critics demonstrate a high level of engagement with a business and/or brand, and with a topic or body of knowledge.

Sometimes conflicts between two groups — a community and a business — are intensified by conflicts within the groups, says Grant. Take for example science, we could benefit tremendously from more “adversarial collaboration” in research and in communication about findings with the greater scientific community.  

When we take the time to understand what's behind the issue we are hellbent on taking on, we may also discover that resolving it may benefit us more than fighting it.

How do we persuade people to listen?

Grant says, “it's much easier to link our agendas to familiar values that people already hold.” People with original ideas should strategize, that is make choices based on time dependent information (vs. using strategy which is basing a course on assumptions), and occasionally reframe their ideas to appeal to their audience.

Decisions made on time dependent information may not work with every group and in every situation, but become part of a process we can use to become more attuned to triggers we may cause in our communications. But it's not only what we say.

We can help ourselves identify people who are more open in their approach to life and work, thus more creative, by observing what they do. How we go about doing things and the type of actions we take both signal something about the way we tend to live our lives.

In To Sell is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others, Dan Pink reminds us we're all in sales, and explains what it means in the new context created by savvy buyers. I've long maintained that persuasion is about giving you enough information so you can make up your own mind, and decide based upon what you want to do and the job you need to get done.

Pink says there are six new pitches that work in helping sell a product, idea, or service. They are:

  1. The Pixar pitch — modeled on the narrative structure of Pixar movies
  2. Subject-Line — your email is a pitch, get over it. It's a plea for attention
  3. Rhyme — a favorite of Pink's, rhyming increases processing fluency
  4. Questions — when you ask a question, the person inevitably has to respond
  5. Twitter — short form invites you to be pithy
  6. One-word pitch — you want ownership of one word

When the process is collaborative, and when we think of it as an interaction, we transform it into an invitation to a conversation. And that is a good starting point for turning enemies into allies as well.


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