The Corrosive Effectiveness of a “Common Enemy”
The conclusion of the election last week did not bring any sort of cathartic closure to more than half of the voters from an almost 2-year campaign.
To Clinton supporters, the “other side” won and the demonstrations / rioting in the streets of major cities reflect their profound displeasure and concerns with the result. Memories of full scale riots from the 60’s and 70’s are too vivid to me and I hope this all subsides ASAP.
But, the response also reflects the regrettable downside of any group finding political or organizational solidarity because of focus on a “common enemy” rather than rallying around a set of core principals.
I will show you how such a negative scenario develops and suggest a better path.
The Pros and Cons of a Common Enemy
There are two clear avenues to creating alignment in pursuing a goal.
The first is what is referred to as a superordinate goal, meaning that it rises above all else. It can be either aspirational or a matter of survival, but it brings people together to focus on bringing it to fruition. Historically the elimination of various diseases such as smallpox, polio, or recently Ebola come to mind as a desirable outcome for all of society. Going to the moon was another.
The second path is what is referred to as having a “common enemy”. This is fundamental to the conduct of a war as both sides seek to vanquish the other. It also has obvious application in sports.
In business, it’s where one company aggressively seeks to maintain or grow their share of the market for their products. Competitors will stress the features, advantages and benefits of their product, but often will do so at the expense of key competitors.
When you are selling a phone, a television or a service, one company may have a decided advantage in pricing, product features or design. But given the nature of competition, other companies can enhance and improve their products and change that equation over time.
In business, a competitor cannot consistently make claims about either their products or their competitors that are not factually true. There are laws against that and doing so can also wreck reputations that have been carefully cultivated over time.
This should also be true in the realm of politics but we have reached the point where the political warfare has truly become a zero-sum game. This last election seemed to wear out the fact checkers and both major candidates had their share of “Pinocchio’s”.
What’s the Truth?
As a debater in high school, we would prepare diligently about a prescribed topic and amass a lot of information to be able to defend either side of the topic – yes, you were only told if you were going to argue the affirmative or the negative at the beginning of each debate.
A priest at my high school stopped to chat with me before our team was leaving for a tournament. I was a sophomore and he asked me about the debate topic and what my position was on it. I hesitated and said, well, I have to debate both sides. He looked right at me and said “Mr. Steiner, you will need to determine your truth about things sometime in life” and then walked away. I was pretty shaken but he came back to me the next week and let me know he was only rattling my cage.
It’s been said that both parties in the recent election have suffered because their ideas and tactics have been developed in an “echo chamber” where only those aligned to the cause are welcome. There is often an elephant in the room during discussions that becomes invisible.
When this happens in business, mistakes in product design, pricing and advertising can all occur resulting in missed opportunities and potentially dissatisfied customers. The customers can seek other products or just decide to do without.
But in politics, those common enemies on the losing side of the equation can truly suffer from policies or laws that either ignored or dismissed their needs or perspectives when they were developed. It also fuels dissatisfaction and creates the type of environment we find ourselves in today.
The old saying is that “to the conquerors go the spoils” but our politics has become so mean-spirited that the “common good” seems completely out of reach.
Seeking Goal Alignment
In business, I’m a big fan of the saying that “none of us is as smart as all of us” and the value of different opinions bears itself out in better decisions being made.
I hope you do not feel that my message makes me a proponent of one party over the other. In business, I believe that religion and politics should be kept in the background. But all organizations are political in that politics is ultimately about the allocation of scarce resources – e.g. how much budget is allocated to one project over another.
If you ever find that your team seems to get energy from dealing with another part of the organization as a common enemy, please be aware that the short-term decisions you may make will not have the longer-term benefits that are critical to sustain success.
- Have I built effective relationships with others I work with to fully understand and respect their perspective on various issues, although I may disagree with them from time to time?
- When I am listening to others, do I drill down to fully understand their perspective on issues or do I immediately begin to plan my rebuttal while they are talking?
- Can you and members of your team point to situations where the input of others had a demonstrably positive impact on the quality of the decision or choices that were made on a particular issue? If so, will you make it a point to reinforce that as needed?
I look forward to your thoughts.