Bad colleagues can wreak havoc. One of the signs of a bad coworker is a pattern of persistent undermining—intentionally hindering a colleague’s success, reputation, or relationships. If you’ve ever had a coworker actively interfere with your productivity, try to make you look bad, steal your ideas, or give you false information, you’ve been the victim of undermining.
The opposite of an underminer is a supporter. When colleagues are supportive, they go out of their way to be givers rather than takers, working to enhance our productivity, make us look good, share ideas, and provide timely help.
Most people assume that relationships are either bad or good. Our coworkers are either takers who undermine us or givers who support us. But research shows otherwise: negative and positive relationships are independent. Many of us have ambivalent relationships with a colleague who undermines us in some situations but supports us in others. What are the implications of these ambivalent relationships?
In a fascinating study led by Michelle Duffy, police officers filled out a survey about how often their closest colleague undermined and supported them. Officers who felt undermined were less committed at work, experienced more physical health problems, and were more likely to take unauthorized breaks and be absent from work. Being undermined was a major source of stress.
But when the underminer was also supportive, things got worse. The officers experienced even lower commitment, had more health issues, and missed more work. It can actually worse to have a colleague who alternates between Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde than to work with Mr. Hyde all the time. When a colleague is a pure taker, you know what to expect, and you can devise strategies for minimizing your exposure and collaboration. But if that colleague takes in some situations and gives in others, it’s harder to avoid the relationship altogether, and it can be quite unpredictable. As Duffy’s team explains, “it takes more emotional energy and coping resources to deal with individuals who are inconsistent.”
Frenemies are worse than enemies, and it’s not just in the workplace. Psychologist Bert Uchino finds the same patterns in everyday relationships. In one study, his team surveyed older adults about how the ten most important people in their networks responded to requests assistance. Some relationships were consistently helpful, others made things worse rather than better, and some were ambivalent, featuring a mix of the two. The adults completed two anxiety-provoking tasks: delivering a speech with minimal preparation and taking a rapid-fire math test. Uchino’s team tracked their heart rates.
The more ambivalent ties people had, the more their heart rates spiked during the speech and the math test. Having close connections that were both undermining and supportive was associated with greater stress. In another study of several hundred adults, the more ambivalent relationships they had, the more likely they were to be stressed, depressed, and dissatisfied with their lives.
One implication of this evidence is that it could be wise to avoid ambivalent relationships, even more so than purely negative relationships. But a different strategy might also be effective. Although receiving support from the same person who undermines us is stressful, receiving support from a different person can serve as a buffer. In the study of police officers, Duffy’s team found that having a supportive boss partially reduced the negative effects of an ambivalent coworker. Indeed, after reviewing several decades of research on good and bad bosses, psychologist Robert Sutton concludes that one of the most critical roles for a boss is to serve as a human shield, protecting people against the slings and arrows of bad relationships.
When we’re being undermined by one person, we recognize the importance of seeking support from someone else. But it may be even more critical to invest in those supportive relationships when dealing with someone who’s guilty of both undermining and supporting us..