"Keep your friends close and your enemies closer," instructs an old standard of Machiavellian wisdom.
But new research suggests most of us are failing spectacularly at heeding this advice. Not only do we not keep an eye on our enemies, a recent study published in the journal Psychological Science and highlighted on the Association for Psychological Science blog suggests, but most of us actually have no idea who our enemies are at all.
Friends are easy to spot...
To figure out how good we are at gauging our competition at work the research team conducted a pair of studies, one focusing on car salesmen and another on students working together on a group project. Both groups were given questionnaires that asked participants to identify who liked them and who was in competing against them, as well as reporting their own feelings of warmth and rivalry for their colleagues.
The data revealed both good and bad news. The upside of the findings was that, when it comes to work buddies, if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it's probably a duck. That means if you crack jokes, share beers, and gossip over Slack, you probably really are friends. Affection, in other words, was easy for the study participants to identify correctly.
... Rivals, not so much.
But the opposite was true of competition. While the study subjects were mostly focused on those above them, looking out for rivals to best, they often failed to notice those slightly below them in the pecking order who were gunning for their positions, leaving them clueless about who their real true enemies were.
In short, we tend to obsess over passing our superiors and ignore those below us who are in turn plotting our own downfall. That rather large blind spot can have serious real world consequences. "People may be blindsided by other people's attempts to cut them down, unaware of the interpersonal competition that fuels those actions," the authors warn.
But thankfully, another old truism of battle also applies here: "forewarned is forearmed." Thanks to this research you can at least be aware of your own potential bias and correct for it, spending a little less time envying those above you and plotting your own assent, and a little more looking over your shoulder for the hungry up-and-comers who could one day blow past you to your utter surprise.
Who's your biggest competition at work? Are you sure?