Note: As we’re in the throws of a bitterly fought election year, Rule #7 takes on greater urgency. Try not to look at somone who thinks or believes differently than you as the “enemy.” Rather, begin by assuming your neighbor is a person of good will trying their best to do what they believe is right and go from there. You’ll be surprised how differently your conversation goes.
Rule # 7: The other team is not the enemy. The enemy is the enemy; don’t confuse the two.
Rule #7 may seem like it only applies to war or possibly sports, but it applies to business and life as well. Conflict can arise when goals or methods between people or organizations differ.
People being people, this difference of opinion can rapidly become a conflict that escalates beyond the scale of the actual problem, and a barrier to both individuals or groups getting what they want. What’s more, conflict between organizations can be a huge emotional drain on both organizations that saps creativity and initiative.
Contrary to the popular myth of the hard charging “corporate warrior” who thrives under conflict, most people don’t want or like it. Most of us would much rather have calm and happy places to work. What’s more, a perpetual state of conflict takes effort to maintain, and it consumes resources that could be productively spent on furthering the organizational goals. Imagine the staff time it takes to fight an “ad war” between to rival companies? It used to be just a matter of coming up with sharp advertisements, but in the age of social media and online reviews managing a reputation against false or misleading information can overwhelm small companies quickly.
The trick is to maintain relations with competitors and peers in what the military calls “Phase 0” (a state of peace or at least peaceful competition). There will always be conflicting goals, but in general even in the modern marketplace there is plenty of “pie” for everyone. Starting a “war” with “the other team” turns the “other” into an enemy, and that usually comes from seeing others as enemies rather than as potential partners. That’s a reason it’s a good idea for businesses and individuals to participate in professional and civic organizations.
You never know when you’re going to find a friend or teammate.
I touch on this idea in my book, Leading Leaders:
As a young officer, I missed an opportunity because I didn’t recognize a teammate when I saw him. In the early 1990s, the Air Force had adopted Total Quality Management (TQM) as an overarching organizational philosophy. As a result, we began a series of “awareness” classes in TQM theory and practice at each level of command.
During an exercise in my week-long introduction to TQM, we were put into a team and given the task to produce paper airplanes. We spent considerable time developing our internal processes and then called over the “supplier” (our instructor) to negotiate a price for our raw materials. The goal was to spend the least amount of money and produce the most paper airplanes. We quickly developed an adversarial relationship with our “supplier,” who repeatedly stressed that he had plenty of “Grade A” paper for our airplanes. After extracting the best possible deal from our supplier, a deal he assured us he was losing money on, we produced a number of paper airplanes. It was only after the exercise was complete that our “supplier” asked us why we didn’t ask him about the rest of his product line. “Why would we want anything other than ‘Grade A’ paper for our airplanes?” we asked. Then he showed us the “Grade B” paper: sheets of paper already folded in half, and he would’ve sold them to us at half price. That would’ve saved a lot of work! Then he showed us the “Grade C” paper: already completed paper airplanes. These were the least expensive of all, a third of the cost of “Grade A” paper. We had never asked our “supplier” what else he had, nor had we invited him into our team. We had simply treated him as a resource to be exploited.
A teamwork approach could’ve gotten our little paper airplane manufacturing company a “win” against our real competitors (the other manufacturing teams) and saved us both time and money. Lesson learned!
Of course, not everyone is willing to “keep the peace,” and sometimes conflict arises. Even in times when you are seriously hurt, it’s useful to refrain from thinking in terms of unconditional warfare. In all but the most extreme circumstances little is gained by crushing the opposition. In business especially, you’re likely to have to deal with that person/organization again. Best to avoid turning a temporary opponent into a permanent enemy if possible. However, when your livelihood or reputation is at stake and the other side is attacking ruthlessly, you have to defend yourself. But be judicious in the application of power, crushing the opposition utterly will usually only extend the conflict. Being magnanimous in victory, and gracious in defeat, will open the door to detente and perhaps even future cooperation.
Soldiers understand this principle. It is only the most fanatical and committed enemy that must be annihilated. Usually it’s enough to defeat the enemy and let them retire from the field with some dignity. America’s World War and Cold War foes are friends and two of them are allies because the US extended the hand of friendship after the war.
Keeping the peace, both within and without, ensures our organizational and personal resources are spent furthering our goals, and not just parrying the thrusts of a competitor.
Mickey believes everyone can reach high levels of performance if inspired and led. During his 28 year US Air Force career Mickey commanded thousands of Airmen, managed portfolios worth billions of dollars, and worked with military, civil, and industry officials around the world. He is a Distinguished Graduate from the Eisenhower School at National Defense University in Washington DC.
Mickey is the author of seven books, including Leading Leaders: Inspiring, Empowering, and Motivating Teams and The 5 Be’s For Starting Out. He’s a frequent contributor to industry publications and writes for his own Leading Leaders blog, Personal Development Magazine, and GeneralLeadership.com.