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Turning “Accidental Adversaries” into Allies

Transforming the hidden causes of conflict in strategic collaborations.

Strategic leaders know that when teams share information and work together, the company as a whole is able to win more customers, fend off competitors, reduce costs, and increase agility. Yet in practice, teams naturally lean toward going it alone. Even if people are open to collaboration, they may not be sure they can trust colleagues in other units, and over time, relationships can turn bitter and adversarial.

This phenomenon is only growing more common. As organizations become more global, virtual, and complex, it takes more work for teams to stay in sync and to act as one company in their relationships with customers, suppliers, regulators, and other stakeholders. And when people are interacting at high speeds via digital tools, it becomes all the more difficult for them to detect the unintended negative side effects of their actions — and makes it all the easier to default to distrust.

Reasons for cross-functional conflict abound, but one of the most common patterns is so-called accidental adversaries. First described by systems thinker Jennifer Kemeny in an article that appeared in Peter M. Senge’s The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook, accidental adversaries is one of a dozen “systems archetypes”: patterns of interaction that cause even well-meaning people to make choices that undermine their larger goals. When one of these archetypes is operating, the pattern of behavior persists, even if leaders change the individuals involved.

Consider Gerardo, a manager with a global tech company who runs sales for Thailand (this is based on a real example, but I have disguised the details). Gerardo has an annual sales quota of US$1 million. His colleague Linda holds a similar quota for the Vietnamese market. After several years of working in silos, the two realized that they could each do better if they shared leads related to regional deals. Simply put, if Gerardo’s team receives a lead for the Thailand office of a company with headquarters in Vietnam, his team would, from here on out, forward the lead to Linda, rather than just pursuing the local sale, and vice versa. With only a little extra effort — remembering to forward leads and following up quickly on referrals from the other team — they would both have a better chance of closing larger, more-profitable regional deals.

Many teams will find that they have opportunities similar to those of Gerardo and Linda. For example, as more industries move toward a subscription model, service providers and customers gain enormous mutual benefits from trust and collaboration. Internally, IT departments can deliver faster if business groups coordinate their requests. When sales makes promises production can keep, the next sale is easier. And when product development teams coordinate to build shareable components, they accelerate releases and are more willing to depend on one another in the future.

With so much to gain, how does this kind of collaboration go wrong? This is where the “accident” of accidental adversaries comes into play. Even as partners enjoy the benefits of collaboration, they naturally tend to look for additional ways to advance their goals on their own. Unfortunately, if leaders pursue individual agendas in isolation, their actions can backfire. I spoke with David Peter Stroh, author of Systems Thinking for Social Change, about the pattern. “With accidental adversaries, each group is wrestling with how to pursue their own success, but the strategy they choose unwittingly undermines their partner,” he said. In another conversation, systems thinking expert Marilyn Paul described a common phenomenon in such partnerships: “We are only aware of our intentions and the pressures on us. But our partners see our actual behavior and feel the impact it has on them.” 

For example, let’s say Gerardo is worried about meeting his country quota and pushes his team to close deals sooner. From his point of view, he is simply pursuing the business results he is responsible for. Sure enough, results for Thailand shoot up. But Gerardo’s strategy may actually be undermining Linda’s team. By trying to close deals sooner, Gerardo’s team may have stopped referring leads to Linda’s group. Or worse, they may delay in responding to referrals from Linda’s team, embarrassing them and costing them sales. The result is that as Gerardo’s results improve, Linda’s decline.

To turn accidental adversaries back into allies, increase awareness of hidden connections: the negative ways people’s actions undermine others, and the positive ways that collaboration pays off.

How is Linda’s team likely to respond? Even if they don’t retaliate out of spite, they likely will be less interested in collaboration. Her team may focus on more local deals or cut back on referrals. As both trust and performance decline, each partner leans toward more desperate and short-sighted local actions to get to their goal, further undermining the other team’s results, and the cycle continues. Once this type of feud takes hold, it can seem impossible to get the other partner to collaborate. If there is high interdependence and the pattern persists over time, both Gerardo’s and Linda’s results can actually decline. Even if one partner wins and the other loses, the company results are suboptimized, regardless of how often senior leaders explain that “we are all in the same boat.”

The key to turning accidental adversaries back into allies is to increase awareness of hidden connections — both the negative ways people’s actions can undermine others, and the positive ways that collaboration can pay off. Ask your colleagues: How do our actions impact those around us? What would you like us to understand about how we make your work easier or more difficult? If we were to collaborate, how might we both benefit? For their part, senior leaders can avoid managing blindly to targets and elevate the importance of shared goals. In practice, doing so means taking a more systemic perspective and digging into root causes and interdependencies.

Turning accidental adversaries into allies requires effort and tough conversations. But the alternative is continued deterioration. For example, in Linda’s and Gerardo’s case, here’s what actually happened: Linda and Gerardo started out with the intent to share leads. Then, senior leaders focused more and more attention on forecasts, which in turn created added pressure to close deals quickly (and thus, locally) — leaving the entire region falling short. Luckily, once you and your colleagues recognize you are stuck in accidental adversaries mode, it is not as hard as it seems to break free. The best place to start is by understanding and addressing the side effects of your own actions.

Elizabeth Doty

Elizabeth Doty is a former lab fellow of Harvard University’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, founder of Leadership Momentum, and director of the Erb Institute’s Corporate Political Responsibility Taskforce at the University of Michigan.

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