Friend, Foe, Ally, Adversary … or Something Else?

To manage relationships with subordinates, colleagues, bosses and others, executives first need to know how to classify those people accurately.

To succeed, executives must manage a myriad of relationships with their subordinates, colleagues, bosses and others. People who are adept at doing so can, for instance, better navigate the organizational politics at their companies. However, executives who lack such interpersonal skills are prone to misreading important situations. They might, for example, count on a colleague’s crucial support that then fails to materialize. Indeed, the ability to manage work relationships effectively is often what differentiates executives who make it to the top rungs of the corporate ladder from those who don’t.

For more than 20 years, we have worked with hundreds of senior executives in dozens of industries. Many of those individuals have a keen intuitive sense of how best to deal with others. The majority, though, need some guidance because they lack an effective framework for accurately classifying — let alone developing strategies for — their work relationships. At most, they might categorize co-workers as friends, foes and neutrals, but that view is far too simplistic, leading to bad misjudgments and costly mistakes. Instead, we have found that work relationships can be defined along one of two continuums: unconditional and conditional, each requiring a different set of strategies.

Unconditional Relationships

Relationships that are independent of situation and context are called “unconditional.” At one end of this spectrum are friends; at the other end are enemies. In the United States, where practically everyone is on a first-name basis, people use the word “friend” so broadly that it has become almost meaningless. Here we define a friendship as a relationship of unconditional trust. In contrast, an enemy — as we define it — is someone who continually works against another person’s interestsregardless of the circumstances. In other words, the relationship is one of unconditional antagonism. In a galaxy of constantly changing relationships, friends and enemies are the two North Stars.

If sturdy fences make for good neighbors, then solid contracts make for strong strategic partnerships. But friends have no need for such safeguards to trust each other. Of course, the business world is contingency-driven, goal-oriented and unpredictable, and such environments are hardly conducive to establishing friendships. In fact, friendships between executives tend to arisedespite the business environment and not because of it. To paraphrase a line from Harry Truman, if you want a friend in the corporate world, get a dog.

Instead, the corporate world is much better suited for making enemies.

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1 Comment On: Friend, Foe, Ally, Adversary … or Something Else?

  • Arun | June 23, 2010

    This is really a great article. But regarding Sheila’s example I just think what the authors had suggested doing her is highly impractical and to an extent impossible in my opinion. The facts are not adequate to figure out what kind of mistake Sheila committed. But if somebody has been literally ‘chucked out’ of the office in a humiliating and indecent manner and if the CEO was highly responsible for such an eventuality to have happened, she has every right and also justified to snub the CEO despite the consequences of that action. Life is not just about becoming a CEO. It’s about dignity and only dignity. When I make a mistake if the boss goes overboard in putting me down and humiliating it speaks of his low character as well. I am not suggesting to be hyper-emotional but a human being is made of emotions.

    But I liked the article so much that I have decided to share this with few of my friends immediately.

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