Co-Workers: Friend or Foe

If you’ve even been edged out of a job and didn’t see it coming, you’re apparently not alone.

New research from Washington University in St. Louis reveals workers, more often than not, have difficulty figuring out who may be edging them out of their positions.

Hillary Anger Elfenbein, professor of organizational behavior and one of the researchers, points out, “You tend to know who likes you. But, for negative feelings, including competitiveness, people [in the study] had no clue.”

How did the researchers reach their conclusion?

Elfenbein and her co-authors, Noah Eisenkraft from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Shirli Kopelman from the University of Michigan, first surveyed salespeople at a Midwestern car dealership where competition was both normal and encouraged. They then studied more than 200 undergraduate students in 56 separate project groups. All were asked similar questions about their co-workers, and what they assumed those people thought of them.

In a story on the research appearing on the Washington University of St. Louis website, Erika Edsworth-Goold quotes Elfenbein as saying …

“Some people show their competitiveness, some people you can tell have it out for you, but others have it out for you and act like they’re your close friend. Those two effects wash out, and people on average have zero idea about who feels competitively toward them.”

The researchers, Edsworth-Goold reports, offer two main reasons for the disconnect: First, people tend to mask outward feelings of competitiveness toward others in an effort to be polite. Also, the concept of reciprocity played a role.

Reciprocation, he says, is a good thing. “You keep dates, you give gifts, you have shared, positive experiences. But to get the benefits of competition, such as promotions or perks, you don’t need it to be reciprocated. And when you don’t get that feeling back, it’s hard to gauge who’s truly competing against you.”

In light of this, Elfenbein is quoted as offering following advice to those worried about being blindsided?

“You need to pay more attention to what people do rather than what they say. When people are too polite to say something to your face, you need a good, strong network that will let you know what other people really think.”