Why Keeping Your Enemies Close May Be Bad Advice

children enemies

It’s sadly an inevitable part of working life that there will be colleagues we get on with, and colleagues we can’t stand the sight of.  How to handle such people and relationships is often much harder, however.  A popular suggestion is to keep your friends close, but your enemies closer, which is a saying I’m sure you’ve heard many times before.

Does the saying really have merit though? A recent study suggests it isn’t always the best approach to take. The researchers used the notorious bear pit of the US Senate as their petri dish to test the adage out in full. The authors studied how senators would engage and interact with one another over a 36 year period from 1973 to 2009, with an intriguing pattern emerging from the data.

When you Should Keep Your Enemies at Arms Length

The voting behaviour of senators would change dramatically when the senators moved closer together, or indeed further apart. It emerged that votes would often appear as a function of the political identities of the senators and the amount of contact they had with one another.  This trend was particularly pronounced when the contact between senators was in a heavily divided group.

"Conventional wisdom says interpersonal contact between people will foster collaboration and consensus," the authors say. "We found that increasing physical contact between people who have opposing and public political identities can instead promote divergence of attitudes or behavior. This tendency is further amplified in environments involving high conflict, which makes political identities more salient."


The authors utilised two distinct measures of political identity to categorise each senator: the party affiliation of the senator and the religious climate in the home state of the senator. The engagement between each senator was measured using both the seating arrangements in the chamber of the Senate, and the committees that each senator sat on.

Not surprisingly, senators from the same party who were in contact more often, either through sitting close together or serving on the same committees, would often converge in their voting patterns. Those from different parties, however, would often become more polarised the more contact they had with one another.

"Co-location can induce both positive and negative outcomes. Sometimes keeping some distance is the better option," the researchers say.


The researchers believe that the US Senate provides a perfect petri dish to study the way we interact, influence and identify with one another because senators tend to have strong (and visible) political identities, and also need to both influence and collaborate with their peers.

Suffice to say, however, the authors firmly believe that their study has implications for the corporate world too, as there is usually no end of disagreements in the workplace, whether over strategy or something smaller.

"Post-merger integration, particularly following a contested takeover, can produce oppositional identities in a very public setting. In such cases, it may help to move interactions into more private settings and find common ground on less divisive issues before tackling the more controversial ones," the authors explain.


How could you use this knowledge in your own dealings?  Do you have a particularly challenging colleague you work with? Your thoughts and comments below please...




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