Gaining Leverage With Challenging “Allies”

Although we battle with some adversaries, e.g., Obama v. Assad; most of our difficulties – truth be told are with allies, those in our tent: Boehner with the Tea Party, mom with dad, CEO with COO, boss with worker. We forget that we’re on the same “team,” because it sure doesn’t feel that way.  So, as you read on, you might bring to mind a challenging supposed “ally.”

Leading means working with people.  People can frustrate. And in frustrating people situations, we’re one of the people.  There are some rare cases where the frustration runs only in one direction. That’s the case when your manager, dean, pastor or CEO is either totally oblivious, or just refuses to accept their part of the problem.  But in the vast majority of cases – don’t you think? — BOTH sides are frustrated. For one it may be more conscious and annoying, but usually two are dancing.

Those people who are best at leading, negotiating, synergizing (and even ending relationships well) have two things in common.  First, they are honest and courageous enough to recognize: I am part of the problem. Second, they possess the ability to first see the other’s point of view.  Let me share the typical contrasting approach.

My business students share leadership “breakdowns” from their own lives, and their classmates consult to them. Then those classmates write-up the case for me.  One question I ask them is: “what values conflict was present?”  Here is where things go astray. The students – who are caring and become close to each other – typically say, “our classmate valued excellence” (or teamwork, creativity or some other lofty value), and they continue, “but our classmate’s adversary valued power” (or control, self-advancement, or some other “selfish” value).  Really?  If we were to question the adversary, they would surely say the exact opposite:  “the student valued being right” (or being a rebel or some other “selfish” value), “while I valued supporting the whole organization” (or meeting standards, being fair to all my workers, or some other lofty value).

This human trait to uplift our own motives and to be skeptical of others’ has been overwhelmingly supported in brain and laboratory research.

The upshot is clear:  If you want to be successful with your ally-adversaries, first inquire about their values – before you advance your own. Ask them, “help me understand…” “I want to know what’s really important to you here…” etc.  You may well have to fight your own disbelief, your tendency only to see their selfish motives. But listening well does three things at once:  (1) it helps you to understand, (2) helps them to feel understood, and (3) improves the chances they’ll listen to you in turn.

Then you have the chance of thinking win/win, preserving both sets of values, and

Leading with your best self!


  • Dan, Could not have been stated more precisely. You have to understand what matters to the other side and engage the person in a manner that will result in an outcome satisfactory to both parties.

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