I don’t normally blog about current events but today, the day after Election Day, I just can’t help myself. Congress is a collaborative group by design which is sometimes easy to forget because they have failed to work collaboratively in recent years. The subtext of the morning’s news coverage is reflective of one of the biggest challenges working in collaborative groups: competition for power.
Election cycles reinforce the truths all collaborative groups face: bullying is effective (but morally wrong), the first one to frame a coherent story wins a major advantage and that people are more likely to hear you when consistently address the WIIFM issue. You aim for collaboration and cooperation but sometimes the people or issues require competition. How do compete for power within a collaborative setting, keep your friends and sleep at night?
Once compromise gives way to competition there is a winner and a loser rather than a solution. Normally, one side emerges because they are more aggressive, louder and/or more strategic than the other but not necessarily because they are right. Members struggle to pick a side because they worry not just about what is the right thing to do but what will be the right thing for them to do politically.
When you are caught up in one of these power plays it seems like everything but in the long-term is usually isn’t. While some of us think acting honorably is more important in the long-run than winning, I assure you that many people who appear to play dirty sleep just fine at night.
So, you are struggling for power over an important issue and perhaps the other side is louder and quicker to the draw. The time to come up with a compromise where everyone wins has past so how do you make sure you can compete when you prefer to collaborate? You need a strategy from the start and depending on your opponent, you need either a strong offense or defense.
If you crumble at the thought of criticism the other side can wear you down to the point that you abandon who you are rather than defend it. The Republicans used this tactic very effectively this round. They gambled that they could associate them with an unpopular president aggressively and consistently and that Democrats would not have the political courage to challenge it. If the Democrats had developed a strategy first to collectively defended the President with economic performance data and other facts, at some point they would have controlled the conversation which is required to win elections.
Shame is an old and effective tactic used to make people feel embarrassed and guilty over their beliefs and behavior. It is effective in part because it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. This is the bully’s favorite tactic because it doesn’t take a lot of brains to use and it slowly wears people down to where they start feeling shame unnecessarily. People who don’t want it aimed at them will sometimes jump on the shaming bandwagon making it harder to deal with.
Sometimes facts alone are not enough to drown out the louder voices. Instead, you need to outsmart them by getting creative and targeting the arguments towards the decision-makers own interests. The way you persuade stakeholders is by being competent, confident, consistent, unphased by bullying, displaying infectious enthusiasm and being articulate.
In other words, you may be right but if your approach is too philosophical and removed from people’s lives and self-interests you will not connect and they may follow the side that seems to be in control. When you are communicating with stakeholders you need to always remember what is in it for them and highlight those points throughout the bigger picture, more philosophical discussions.
All boards, committees and teams occasionally struggle for power in less obvious ways than our governing bodies. You can learn a lot about collaboration by watching our political circus. But just remember, integrity is a long-term strategy.