Friend or foe?

Jul 16, 2013, 08:58 IST | Soma Das

Tennis champs Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic have been friends for years on the circuit but now find themselves pitted against each other on the court. Here's how to tightrope-walk tricky situations when friends become rivals, especially in the same profession

On the surface, there seems to be many things that ties World No 1 tennis player Novak Djokovic from Serbia to World No 2 player Andy Murray from the United Kingdom. For one, they were born within a week of each other, in 1987 (May 22 and May 15, respectively). Their career paths have also veered in similar directions. The prodigies first met in 2000 during a junior tournament and became good friends. But on the tennis courts they have often rivaled each other, as they find themselves playing a cat-and-mouse game on the rankings board (Djokovic: 1, Murray: 2).

Andy Murray (left) looks at Novak Djokovic during the victory ceremony after the men’s singles final at the Australian Open, on January 27. Pic/ AFP

Boardroom mind games
In today’s competitive corporate world, such occurrences are intrinsic and unavoidable. Your closest friends and classmates might turn out to be your biggest rival at work. Comparisons may lead to envy, a frequent need for external validation and insecurity, which can lead to sabotage and tantrums. Negotiating this tricky minefield is difficult and may lead to the friendship getting strained or to workplace conflicts.

Life coach Khyati Birla believes that competitiveness is in our genes: “From our cave-dwelling days, when competition meant either to kill or die, we have been wired to believe that the end justifies the means if you want the ‘end’ badly enough. Rivalry is a powerful psychological phenomenon with far-reaching behavioural consequences. Unfortunately, society often implicitly portrays the success of one participant as failure of the other, thereby making the entire process emotionally damaging to the loser.” She adds that being pitted with a friend leads to a build-up of emotional competitive residue, which can affect friendship.

...but it pays, too
However, there are certain plus points to working with friends as well. Mishti Verma, founder of alternative corporate training centre, Inner Katha, which uses a theatre-based methodology, says that having trained working professionals who are friends, she found that the mutual trust and comfort levels were an advantage. “Collaborative working requires trust and understanding that a friendship already brings to the table. A sporting spirit helps focus on the work and respect the friendship. There is always healthy competition or negative competitiveness,” she reveals.

Birla cites the example of one of her clients, a businessman who shared a great social and professional relationship with an associate until their businesses complemented each other. “Then one day the associate, in a bid to expand, entered into direct competition with my client. Things went downhill with my client feeling betrayed whereas his rival felt he was duty-bound to grow his organisation. Ultimately, my client had to take drastic preventive measures to protect his market share.”

All in the spirit
Psychiatrist Dr Rajiv Anand feels that friendships can last provided both the parties work on it: “If they take the competition in a healthy spirit they will succeed in maintaining a cordial relationship. For example, there are people who studied together and later find themselves working in rival companies, yet they maintain their friendship.” Dr Anand states that in situations where friendship is affecting work, priority should go to the workplace. “Workers are employees of their company and are supposed to do their best for the organisation. If they focus more on what they have to do and can do, it will lead to a healthy atmosphere with no bitterness or acrimony, neither with the colleagues in the same organisation nor with others in rival organisations,” he states.

Corporate trainer Anita Shantaram observes that comparisons, even if among siblings, hurts the relationship; it’s the same at the workplace. “Work is integral to a person’s identity and how they perceive themselves. Managers might want to pit friends imagining it would lead to better results but it can backfire. In the process, the synergy and support between the workers, which could benefit the workplace, might get lost,” she explains.

Gender bender
Experts believe that male-female friendships have a better chance of survival in a competitive scenario than same-sex friendships. Birla says, “The competition heats up if the same gender is competing for the same goal. It’s a throwback to our cave dwelling ancestors who had segregation of tasks based on strength. Resources were scarce and you had to perform your best to survive. A competitive scenario triggers a similar feeling of scarcity.”

Shantaram elaborates that when people accept that there are differences among them, they are okay with being competitive. “Women have innate feelings of ‘protecting-their-turf’ and at the same time, they are empathetic and want to reach out. Men have a strong competitive instinct and an instinct of ‘going-for-the kill’ that can come in the way of friendship or kinship,” observes Verma.

How much to share?
Sharing news is often one of the key aspects of friendship and conversation might veer towards confidential topics related to work. “Once you are in a job, then you are more committed to it and less to the friendship, for which there is always space and time beyond company premises and matters. It’s necessary to maintain basic protocol. Neither endanger the company’s interest nor your own; it’s okay to chitchat and share but keep the vital information out,” suggests Dr Anand.

Win-win situation
Communication: Express, trust and be frank with the friend.
Maturity: Both parties should be okay with accepting their strengths and limitations. Try to compartmentalise work and not talk about it with each other, unless it’s productive.
Access the situation: Remain focussed on turning a distressing situation to it’s advantage. Form a strategy based on your rival’s game plan and your strengths, while managing your drawbacks. 

Evaluate and introspect: Ask yourself: What value does achieving this goal brings to you? What value does this friend bring to you? What is more important? If you win, pat yourself on the back and thank your rival for bringing out the best in you. If you lose, assess the situation and yourself, fairly. Some things are not in your control. 

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