Why You’ll Accomplish More Working With Your Opponents

What you can learn from the company that has built a business on bringing people who disagree together to solve problems.

Why You’ll Accomplish More Working With Your Opponents
[Photo: Flickr user Ragnar Jensen]

Editor’s Note: This article is one of the top 10 business lessons of 2015. See the full list here.


The ability to work well with people who have different opinions and values is a persistent challenge in daily work-life.

The problem, says science, is that most humans unconsciously favor others who are genetically similar. That doesn’t just mean we like people who look like us, but also inherited traits such as enjoying reading or travel are also a big draw.

So what happens when you mix up a group of people that don’t necessarily all share similar behaviors and interests? Research shows that the neurotransmitter oxytocin does the opposite of what we normally experience when it’s released. Instead of pouring out a flood of feel-good hormones that helps us bond with our perceived opponents, being with people who are not like us causes oxytocin to incite suspicion and disdain. Neither are good tools when working towards a common goal.

Begin With Something You Both Want

Erin Barnes witnesses this on a regular basis. As cofounder and executive director of ioby, a crowd-resourcing platform that connects neighbors, donors, and volunteers to fund projects in underserved communities, Barnes points out, “Usually, when neighbors come together, it’s to fight against something–that’s the underpinnings of what’s called NIMBYism [Not In My Backyard].”

To combat the negative dynamic that rises from the “cliche of cranky neighbors complaining about something rather than offering solutions,” ioby got its name from the acronym for “in our backyards.” “We’re interested in people with different perspectives meeting and working together to make something the whole neighborhood can be proud of,” says Barnes.


So far, ioby has supported more than 250 projects in New York City, and has 100 more under way across the country. Barnes contends that the end product isn’t just a new public space or sustainable initiative, it’s a new understanding among the project’s supporters. “Working on a positive project together can help break down some of those adversarial boundaries,” she says.

Find the Common Ground

Barnes understood early on that wanting to change the world is an ideal worth striving for, but making real, lasting change isn’t easy. “To get anything worthwhile done requires involving a diversity of constituents, and that means stepping out of your comfort zone to talk with people you don’t agree with,” she says.

She realized this even before she started ioby, with her work as a community organizer for an environmental group that was protecting salmon and its habitat.

In that role, she knew she had to find a way to bring tribal, sport, and commercial fishermen to sit across the table from environmentalists. The problem, she says, was that although the fishermen wanted to protect the fish because they were their livelihoods, they also had long-held negative attitudes towards environmentalists. “We couldn’t get anything done by remaining in opposition,” Barnes admits, “We had to find shared goals, even if the conversation was somewhat uncomfortable at first.”

Finding commonality takes a shift in mind-set, Barnes observes. “We need to shift from thinking of others as adversaries, to thinking of them as potential collaborators who also have something to gain from working together,” she says, citing the old trope that nothing brings people together like a common enemy.


“I’ve found that a mutual connection to place is a great starting point,” she says. “Sharing a physical space is powerful.”

Select a Partner Who Isn’t Like You

Widening the circle of potential allies also served her well when she partnered with Brandon Whitney to launch ioby. Though they met at Yale’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and shared common values, their personalities are opposite. Barnes is the risk-taker and change-maker, while Whitney tends to take a logical, more cautious approach.

As they continue to build ioby, this idea of engaging opponents remains at the core of Barnes’s work. “I’ve seen this kind of adversaries-turned-allies dynamic play out in many ioby projects in public spaces,” she says. Though various groups value them for different reasons, Barnes contends that the diversity of opinions actually makes the outcome stronger.

“A vibrant public plaza near a train station means better public safety and less crime, because there are more people watching,” Barnes explains. “It can also be better for local businesses who rely on foot traffic, and provide a space for cultural institutions to have programming,” she adds.

There’s no reason that a project need be just one thing to one group, Barnes maintains. “Nobody needs to ‘win’ the argument of what’s the most important if the outcome moves towards everyone’s goals.”

About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.