October 30, 2018

Who’s got your back in the workplace?

What sets the greatest leaders apart?

Often, it’s their ability to manage relationships.  That’s the message of a great piece published more than 10 years ago that still resonates today.  In their article, Friend, Foe, Ally, Adversary … or Something Else (registration required for one free piece), Laurence Stybel and Maryanne Peabody argue workplace relationships can be conditional and unconditional.  Understanding — and navigating — the difference is key to getting things done in the workplace, and to leadership.

Unconditional relationships

Stybel and Peabody say unconditional relationships are those that exist independent of context.  How these relationships are defined is static.  At one end of the continuum are true friends, people you trust no matter what.  They always have your best interests at heart.  At the other end?  Enemies, or people who work against your interests, no matter what.

Conditional relationships

The conditional, or context-dependent, relationships are more complex.  These are also the most common in the business world.  Again, think of a continuum.  At one end are your allies, who work toward your interests as long as it serves their interests as well.  At the other end are your adversaries, who work against your interests unless it serves them to work toward your interests.

Because they are context-dependent, ally and adversary relationships are more fluid.  This can be a source of stress and confusion, but also an opportunity.

[bctt tweet=”Given the right set of circumstances, any adversary has potential to become an ally and benefit you and your organization.” username=”MettaSolutions”]

Managing relationships

Stybel and Peabody have seen professionals, even experienced executives, make the same mistakes over and over:

  • Assuming a friendship where none exists
  • Misclassifying adversaries as enemies
  • Failing to convert adversaries to allies
  • Trying to convert enemies, often a futile process
  • Taking allies for granted by failing to maintain and capitalize on these alliances

You can probably imagine how these scenarios could unfold painfully.  If you’ve ever shared information you shouldn’t have and seen it go public, you may know something about assuming friendship when you shouldn’t, for example.

New leaders in particular may struggle with assumptions about friendships, and navigating relationships with people they once saw as friends.  Even if friendships persist, they inevitably become more complex.

The truth is, it’s lonely at the top. Allies can be all around, but the higher up the ladder you climb, the fewer true friendships you can expect to have in the workplace.  Everything you learned about relationships up to this point may no longer apply.  That’s OK.  It’s the nature of the work, but managed properly, you will find mutually beneficial opportunities for alliance all around.

Understanding your context

Look around you.  Who do you see?  Likely a mix of allies and adversaries, but it’s not always easy to tell.  As a leader, it’s important that you hone the emotional intelligence needed to read people, but people are not always easily read.  So you must do some fact-finding.

I like to explore a new workplace — and really any new situation — by identifying and talking with the wisdom keepers of an organization.  These people, who understand the institution and its history (including the dirty laundry) can help you unlock the complex web of connections among people and the keys to managing and leveraging it.

Ask them what you don’t know that you should.  Always assume you don’t know enough and use your curiosity to amass a body of intelligence that will help you determine where those around you fit.  Are they adversaries?  Allies?  What are the points of possible mutual benefit you can leverage?

Wherever you are, whatever you are working on, you need to know the lay of the land.  That includes the people around you, and where they fall on the ally-adversary continuum.

How do you see the people around you?

Are you surrounded with allies and adversaries?  How do you manage these relationships?  And have you struggled with the mistakes above?  If so, you’re in good company.

Last updated October 30, 2018