This post was originally published on Forbes online on 10/29/2017.
Leadership requires some tricky navigating when you share the same final goal with others but disagree about tactics or strategy. This isn’t the most frequent leadership dilemma (except in a partnership where it can be more common) but when it does arise the potential for conflict, rancor and estrangement is significant. How do you negotiate the situation?How do you proceed?
I recently found myself in this kind of dilemma.In thinking about it, I realized it’s not the first time in my leadership career. My suspicion is that some of us more often find ourselves disagreeing with the larger group. Maybe we’re more contrarian, or maybe we’re more apt to be lone wolves in our thinking.
I distilled a handful of guiding principles and repetitive patterns during a recent iteration of this dilemma. Observing my own experience as well as those of clients, I also have some suggestions for a meta-strategy (a strategy about strategy) to help in navigating same-goal-different-strategy conflicts.
Principles And Patterns:
• Even when we agree on the end goal, it is too easy to see those who have a different strategy as opponents. They’re not.
• It is incredibly easy to waste energy and time fighting about strategy and tactics and lose sight of the goal.
• Outsiders (with a different goal) will lump you together, not caring about the strategic differences that you think are so important and only noticing that you share the same goal. These are your real opponents.
• Emotional attachment to our own strategy idea can cause any of us to lose sight of the goal and forget who are ultimate allies are.
• Emotions can be very high in these situations, so it’s worthwhile to back off repeatedly from your own passionate advocacy and go through an analytic process (see below).
• Anxiety is a big (and often unrecognized) part of the problem. Any way you can find to relax or help your “strategic opponents” to do so will help. Ultimately, follow your own path and let your colleagues follow theirs. You can’t control them and their action doesn’t reflect on you. Nor do you have to give up your identity or beliefs.
What Can You do? You Need A Meta-Strategy
The solution is a little different depending on whether the disagreement on strategy is occurring within a clearly defined organizational hierarchy versus a loosely knit group of peer leaders or an equal partnership.
When disagreements occur within a hierarchy, in some ways it’s easier. A CEO or organizational president can, in the end, say, “We’re going to do it my way.” Lacking ultimate decision-making authority, a subordinate can argue her position and then yield when she must.
But problems can arise here too. If the CEO uses her power to chose a strategy that others disagree with, she risks the disaffection or lack of enthusiastic investment by her team. She even runs the risk of unconscious sabotage if people are angry enough. On the other end of the power dynamic, the subordinate leader who argues her case for a certain strategy and “loses” may be a realist and yield but not be comfortable with the outcome. She has to ask herself then if she can live with the winning strategy. If it’s against her personal ethics or character, she may face a tough decision about leaving the organization.
When there’s no power hierarchy, as in a group of co-equal professional leaders, the calculus is a little different.
Dealing effectively with this kind of daunting and draining situation begins with some self-reflection and analysis:
• Think about the strategy you want to pursue. What are the reasons you’re committed to it? Why do you think it’s going to work?
• Analyze the strategy of those who agree with you on the ultimate goal but differ on strategy. What’s your objection to their strategy? If your feelings about the “wrongness” of their approach are intense, spend some time thinking about what’s behind that intensity. Do you have a stylistic problem, an ethical problem, or a tactical problem?
Next take some time to think about the possibilities in your relationship with the person or group you disagree with.
• Is compromise possible? If everyone stripped away their emotional attachment to his or her strategy (this means you too!) would there be an opportunity for compromise?
• Can you convert the others to your position?
• Could you give up your preferred strategy and join them — allow yourself to be converted? Are you holding on to your position out of stubbornness or narcissism, or do you really believe it is the best or most ethical way to proceed?
Going through this process, it’s important to be realistic about your own personality. Some people are more temperamentally suited to compromise than others. You may be more or less gifted at persuasion — converting others to your point of view. For others, being “converted” and giving up their own position is just too uncomfortable. If you’re not temperamentally suited for compromise, persuasion or conversion, the best path ends up being peaceful co-existence. Know what your talents, skills and predilections are and proceed with that in mind.
If you’ve considered and rejected or exhausted these three options — converting your allies to your strategy, finding a viable compromise or yielding and joining them, it’s time to go your own way.
Try to maintain cordial relations with your allies whose strategy you oppose. This can be tricky when the controversy is public. I’ve been put on the spot in a TV debate where I was asked point blank what I thought about my colleagues’ position. I scrambled to say I admired their passion, disagreed with their tactics but agreed on the goal. I was impressed and grateful that my counterpart was very gracious and complimented my work even though I had made it clear that I thought his approach was not just wrong for me but wrong.
For me, solving this leadership problem is a work in progress, so I’ll close with an inspirational quote. According to biographer Jon Meacham, Thomas Jefferson’s political genius lay in his “building contingent majorities and pressing ahead and cutting deals.”
He was totally devoted to the survival and success of the American experiment, and he would do almost anything to serve that end. He was not at all handcuffed by ideology; if he believed it would serve the American cause, he would do just about anything … And I think that’s what great politicians do. They are committed to a philosophy but are willing to part from dogma to make great things happen.