Tuesday, August 27, 2013

When Should You Go to War?

I usually have a good laugh, at least in my mind, when I hear people say that they don't or won't engage in conflict.  The fact is that every human being on Earth comes from a background of conflict.  Since the beginning of time, humans have competed over everything although most often resources.  If you are alive today it is because your ancestors were able to survive where other, less hardy or adaptable groups of people could not compete.  You don't have to take my word for it - just look at the daily news.  Humans go at it on a daily basis.  Try playing a season of fantasy football if you want to see the warrior come out in both you and your opponents.

In the workplace conflict is inevitable but not always winnable.  Obviously any rational person should avoid conflict when there is no way to win.  Just read the poem "Charge of the Light Brigade" and ask yourself whether or not those men were noble or just dumb.  So we know that we shouldn't fight un-winnable battles with our co-workers.  Yet, as managers if we fail to stand up for ourselves, our teams, or the "right" course of action we are poor leaders indeed.

Anyone in a position of leadership already understands what I have said so far.  The bigger topic to discuss is how to actually engage in conflict within the workplace and come out ahead.  I'll throw in the usual caveats about conflict - don't engage in it unless you have to; always try to be collaborative; look for the win-win scenario; be respectful; remember that you should prioritize your actions in terms of "Company, Team, Me".  But when all else fails, you need to play to win.  In order to do that, however, you need to know who you are and how you are "constructed" to fight.  After all, Sun Tzu said it best: "Know your enemy and yourself and in one hundred battles you will never be in peril." (http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Sun_Tzu)

Let's examine the part about knowing who you are in this context.  For simplicity sake, I like to classify corporate warriors into three different buckets.  Sure, this takes out any chance for nuance or "unique-ness" but the categories fit.  They are:
  1. Vikings 
  2. Spartans
  3. Romans
Here is the context for you to better understand what these categories mean.

Vikings - these warriors are raiders.  The way they fight is not to conquer but to generally gain a specific objective.  In ancient times the objective was usually gold, wealth, livestock, and slaves.  In today's corporate setting, a "Viking" is someone who wants to win in terms of a singular goal.  The struggle is usually not about power but over a specific item or event.  Corporate Vikings tend to battle over tactical things like office space, project participation, or "being right".  The aftermath of a Viking battle is usually measured in hours or just a few days.

Spartans - the ancient Spartans were a fearsome society of men and women based upon martial principles.  Despite their military prowess (they had no city walls - the army was the city wall!), the Spartans only ever fought in the Peloponnese.  This is the area of southern Greece that makes up about a third of the country.  The Spartans were strong but brittle.  They could win almost any battle but due to a very limited supply of elite soldiers, they could not stand to lose any major encounters because they would be unable to replace their losses.

In the corporate setting, Spartans are usually managers and directors.  They have strong power but it is highly localized within a group.  The conflicts that they engage in are over resources, budgets, ownership of projects, or other political issues within a department or sometimes division.  Since their strength may be high but limited in scope, the Spartans usually engage in conflict that is smaller in scale.  After all, if the corporate Spartan loses, the consequences are usually a total loss (read: demotion or termination).

Romans - without a doubt the Romans were the preeminent power of ancient times.  They had a fearsome military but also the political and economic infrastructure to fight on multiple fronts.  For about 700 years the Romans were constantly at war on fronts all over the world.  Unlike the Spartans, the Romans could suffer tremendous losses and still be viable.  In fact, on a single day at the battle of Cannae (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Cannae) the Romans lost a staggering 80,000 troops.  To put that into perspective, the bloodiest day ever for the United States came in 1862 at the battle of Antietam (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Antietam).  The combined Union and Confederate losses were about 23,000 men.  Despite being 1/4th of the losses suffered at Cannae, can you imagine how the American public would react to those types of losses today?  The point is that Rome could wage war all over the world with multiple enemies, take a licking, and keep on ticking.

If you are a corporate Roman, odds are that you are highly placed in your organization and have many resources reporting to you.  If you are that fortunate, you are probably playing politics at the division level with some type of involvement from the Board of Directors.  You are likely battling over the strategic direction of the company, future business engagements, and are probably either the CEO or are in that "inner circle".  In any case, as a Roman you can afford to get into extended conflicts and even lose some of the battles if you think your cause is right.  Unlike the other two categories, you are built to win the larger strategic battles.

The purpose of all of this information is for you to think about what type of corporate warrior you are and maybe what you aspire to be.  Knowing who and what you are will allow you to successfully engage in the conflicts that you deem important while having a good chance of winning.  For every leader, conflict is inevitable - losing is not.

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