3 Ways To Turn Rivals Into Collaborators

Competition changes your brain, and normal methods of conflict resolution don’t work. Instead, use these three strategies.

3 Ways To Turn Rivals Into Collaborators
[Photo: Flickr user Andrey]

In every organization, there’s a handful of people who everyone else goes to for advice. They know how to manage people. They know how to win and establish trust. They know how to turn adversaries into allies. They’re able to seemingly adopt a neutral stance when conflicts arise.


As a result, they’re the most effective leaders.

Cosimo de’ Medici, de facto ruler of Florence during the Italian Renaissance, was this kind of person. He knew how to give resources–both economically and politically–to different groups of people to build his giant banking empire. He built layers of relationships through what’s known as “multivocal leadership,” which Brian Uzzi, a Richard L. Thomas professor of leadership at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, describes as being able to identify with each group’s way of thinking and common purpose. This is achieved through having a deep curiosity about people. What is it that drives them? What are their experiences, mentalities, and skills?

Medici’s deep understanding eventually made him de facto ruler of Florence. Like most advice, adopting Medici’s leadership style is easier said than done. Typically, when you enter an organization, where your loyalty lies is already “tainted” in some ways, Uzzi tells Fast Company, because people assume that you’re on the side of the person who hired you.

This mind-set can create rivalries. Uzzi came up with a system to turn rivals into collaborators around a decade ago when his former students found that they often created rivalries in the organizations they were brought into. These students were typically hired from the business school to do something radical to change the direction of an organization. When that happens, feuds form against groups that are used to the old way of doing things.

“At the essence of most rivalries is threat,” says Uzzi. “Most of the people that see you as a rival do so because they’re threatened by you. You’re making decisions faster than they do, which means that you’re coming up with ideas that they think they should be coming up with.”


How Competition Changes Your Brain

Uzzi explains:

When you generate threat, the mind physiologically changes. So the blood that’s typically in your cerebral cortex, where you do most of your thinking at the front of your brain, recedes to the oldest part of your brain called the “reptilian” stem. Once the reptilian stem is activated, no matter what you hear in terms of logical reasons of why you should act different, it becomes impossible for you to do that because you turn every rational reason that someone might give you for partnering with them into a Trojan Horse situation.

In other words, trying to end a feud by approaching your rival with rational reasons doesn’t work because trust is based on both reason and emotion. If someone’s orientation towards you is negative, every rational reason you give them for ending your conflict with each other will be aligned with their negative feelings because of a lack of trust.

To turn these negative feelings around, Uzzi suggests his “3R” method, which develops new “connective tissue” and allows fresh, new information to enter–and be heard–by the brain.


1. Redirection

First, the negative feeling others feel towards you needs to be redirected towards something else. It could be a common enemy. It could be an explanation where the person thought you did something to harm them, but actually it was a third entity beyond your control that was harming the both of you.

“Managers usually think, ‘Let me go to this person and be as rational as possible,’” says Uzzi. “Although it’s well-intentioned, it really doesn’t deal with the physiology and psychology of decision making, so they’ve got to go through the first step of redirection.”

2. Reciprocity

If you want to rebuild the relationship, you have to give something up before you ask for something in return. This can be anything from financial resources, for instance sharing your research budget, or intellectual resources, such as giving people advice and helping them plan strategies.

It’s important to remember that in this situation, you should not be asking for a “fair trade” in return. If that is the case, for instance an “I do this for you, you do this for me” situation, then you’re merely carrying out a transaction rather than establishing a relationship.

If you give first, then the relationship becomes ongoing, says Uzzi. Additionally, think carefully about what you give and make sure it doesn’t take too much effort or resources for the other party to reciprocate. In most work situations, staying late to help work on a project should suffice.


3. Rationality

After you’ve laid down the root and connective tissue of your new relationship, you need to be very clear about the expectations of your relationship moving forward. Who will be the authority in the relationship? Who controls the resources? How is your relationship beneficial for all parties? Explain that thoroughly to your new ally. Be very clear about how you want to carry out your new relationship so that it doesn’t resume into its default adversarial stance.

Rivalries are destructive. The energy that goes into trying to determine how the other party wants to harm you next is exhaustive. Smart leaders know feuds can’t be ignored or avoided. Eventually, you will need everyone around to strengthen your position–much like Medici did–in order to become de facto ruler of your own career.

About the author

Vivian Giang is a business writer of gender conversations, leadership, entrepreneurship, workplace psychology, and whatever else she finds interesting related to work and play. You can find her on Twitter at @vivian_giang.