How Am I Supposed to Work with Her?”: The “Accidental Adversaries” Storyline


Building solid partnerships presents a perplexing challenge for organizations—and individuals—today. Managers are becoming increasingly aware that strong relationships among coworkers, team members, departments, and even companies and their vendors are essential for organizations to thrive. When relationships are healthy, people can direct their energies toward revenue-generating activities. When relationships are weak, however, energy is dissipated as people focus their efforts on politicking, self-protection, and destructive game-playing.

But being aware of the need for strong connections does not bring them about. If anything, despite our best intentions, we seem to be losing the capacity to build and maintain productive relationships: Marriages are breaking down, teams are falling apart, departments are stuck in conflict, and business partners are spending more time covering their flanks than generating value. Despite the best intentions, time and again, friends become enemies—a dynamic known as “Accidental Adversaries.”

The Dynamics of Breakdown

In any relationship, each party has his or her own purpose. Some of the things you do contribute to my achieving my objectives and others get in my way. Often the “getting in the way” occurs when you inadvertently make my life more difficult while pursuing your own goals. In response, I might set up safeguards for future interactions.

These safeguards end up making your life more difficult. You then take action to protect your interests, unintentionally obstructing me in turn.

In this case, we have fallen into the “Accidental Adversaries” structure—a reinforcing cycle in which we act in our own self-interest and impede one another. But why is it so easy to lose sight of our mutual goals? Writing in The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge suggests that learning is often disabled by a pattern of thinking he calls “the enemy is out there.” For instance, I can usually find evidence that you are to blame for problems in our relationship. In a work situation, if you miss an agreed-upon deadline for completing your end of a project, I may reproach you for your lack of accountability. Casting the blame on you absolves me of any responsibility for the delay and reduces the possibility that I might act to put things right.

At the same time, because of my reprimand, you may become defensive. Just as I can find ways to blame you for the delay, you can always find ways to blame me—you may believe that my poor instructions made your task more time-consuming than it needed to be. This kind of “tit-for-tat” blaming plays an important role in making relationships go wrong.

Another element that often undermines partnerships is “either/or” thinking. Depending on whether I most often notice the things you do that please me or those that annoy me, I classify you as “good” or “bad,” “trustworthy” or “untrustworthy.” The combination of “tit-for-tat” blaming and “either-or” thinking can undermine even the best-intentioned alliance. We may sense that we should be working together, but we feel that we have little choice but to protect ourselves. After all, we each think that the other is to blame for any difficulties, and our “either/or” thinking prevents us from noticing the good thatwe are also doing for one another.

Bumps in the Road

What lessons can we take from these dynamics? Although it is tempting to think that we can sort out our disagreements by finding out “who started it,” this approach is unlikely to help us break out of the vicious cycle in which we’ve become trapped. The answer to that query is likely shrouded in the mists of time and a perplexing lack of bad motive on anyone’s part. And posing the question merely reinforces the blaming activity.

If we are to resist the tendency to fall into adversarial relationships, we need to accept that, from time to time, we will inadvertently obstruct one another. The good news is that we can choose to focus attention on the benefits that we offer one another, and we can cultivate our capacity to act in selfless rather than self-interested ways. For this to happen, we need to form relationships with those whom we trust to be like-minded. Then, if we do encounter bumps in the road, we can work together to get to our destination without undermining the quality of our relationship or the pleasure we take in the journey.

Philip Ramsey teaches organizational learning and training and development at Massey University in New Zealand. He is the author of several books, including the Billibonk series (Pegasus Communications). Rachel Wells is currently completing her master’s degree in human resource management at Massey University. She is particularly interested in research into the creation of learning environments at work.

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