Ally or Adversary?

I observed a leadership development event facilitated by Morag, the CEO of Skye Team, and witnessed a true dichotomous moment. The group had been discussing the concepts within Morag’s upcoming book, Cultivating Winning Relationships and the importance of teamwork and collaboration to success. The group had explored the concepts of Ally and Adversary relationships at work and the impact of these on organizational culture, employee engagement and ultimately business and individual success.

The participants were divided up into teams and given a problem to solve. Each person was given a card with a clue to the puzzle and on that card, whether they were to behave as an Ally and help ensure the team’s success, or as an Adversary in which case they were to undermine the team.

So after a day of discussions on ally and adversarial behavior, how did the teams interact? Naturally, they assumed the worst of each other. As they attempted to solve the problem, accusations flew and conversations were yelled over each other as the team members “worked together” to solve the problem. Some were accused of behaving as Adversaries and were essentially “voted off the island.”

Eventually, after some time both teams solved the problem and regrouped to debrief and to discuss the dynamics that occurred. As Morag addressed the teams, she returned to the concept of Ally and Adversary and asked who they thought the Adversaries were. Finger-pointing continued, some accusations were light-hearted, others were more serious. Those who were the “accused” described how frustrated they felt to be held under suspicion, most said this caused them to “check out” even further, which, for the accusers, only served to prove their point. At this point Morag let the group in on one key element to the exercise:

There were no adversaries.

Everyone was behaving with positive intent as an Ally – or thought they were, and yet their behavior was somehow mis-perceived by others as negative, designed to undermine the team, to prevent the group from successfully completing the problem. This was an “aha” moment for the group. Not only did these teams assume the worst in each other, but they did so when everyone was behaving in a supportive way, even after spending the morning discussing the importance of assuming positive intent, of behaving as an Ally.

What can we learn from this?

We all have an inner dialogue that in most people, goes completely unchecked. We tell ourselves an internal “story” about what is happening and then look externally for proof that supports that story. Instead of being flexible thinkers, we distort the incoming data to fit what we already believe. But what if what we believe is misinformed?

In short, don’t always believe your thoughts. They may be telling you one thing when another is actually going on. A true leader with Emotional Intelligence (EQ) will have the courage to discuss the undiscussables to get at underlying beliefs and open the lines of communication – but that’s a blog for another time.

Learn more about Ally or Adversary?