Never mind office romance. Fear the collenemy

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I’m coining a word. Colleague + enemy = collenemy (rhymes with frienemy). Now that I write it, it sounds vaguely gastrointestinal. I perhaps ought to have consulted this instructional on Wikihow that teaches you how to make up nonsense words.

I’ve had some collenemies in my day. At the financial trade magazine where I worked as an editor, I shared an office with another editor whom I at first considered a friend. He was sweet, ingratiating and good at his job. But he was also competitive. When he overheard me taking a call for a freelance article I was penning on the side for The New York Times, what did he do? Yep: he trotted right over and told our boss.

Our boss called me in. I sweated. Lucky for me, the boss was a really nice man who understood my yearning to write. He was also a narcoleptic. Seriously. In the middle of his half-hearted butt whupping, he fell asleep. My boss and I got along great during the few months I remained there before I was hired away by Money magazine (whose editor had read that article in the NYT and hunted me down).

But my relationship with my colleague never recovered. He was forever my collenemy. Our formerly collegial, even warm, work environment turned icy and uncomfortable. That certainly contributed to my hasty exit.

In the run-up to Valentine’s Day, I’m getting a lot of press releases about surveys and books on office romance. But it’s the toxic teammate who’s the bigger worry, says John Challenger of Chicago outplacement and career coaching firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. Bad blood between coworkers can lead to “a wide variety of workplace problems, ranging from lost productivity and higher turnover to increased and open hostility.” He adds:

University of Washington Business School doctoral student William Felps and professor Terence Mitchell analyzed about two dozen published studies that focused on how teams and groups of employees interact, and specifically how having bad teammates can destroy a good team. They found that a single “toxic” or negative team member – someone who does not do his or her fair share of work, is chronically unhappy and emotionally unstable, or who bullies or attacks others – can be the catalyst for workplace dysfunction.

The researchers found,

In one study of approximately 50 manufacturing teams, Felps and Mitchell discovered that teams with one disagreeable or irresponsible member were much more likely to experience conflict, poor communication, and a lack of cooperation between teammates, all of which led to poor team performance.

Another study by researchers at the University of North Carolina identified the “consequences of workplace incivility”:

In the survey of 1,400 workers, 53 percent of respondents lost work time worrying about a past or future confrontation with a coworker. More than one-third (37 percent) said a hostile confrontation caused them to reduce their commitment to the organization, and 22 percent said they put less effort into their work because of a confrontation. Twelve percent were compelled to leave the employer following the confrontation.

So, managers: never mind the couple performing tonsil hockey by the ladies’ room—other than to Lysol the heck out of the stapler she recently borrowed. It’s not the office nookie you need to watch; it’s the office smackdown. Be afraid of the collenemy. Be very afraid.