Assume all are Potential Allies

A couple of years ago I was introduced to a paper by Allan Cohen and David Bradford* which introduces a framework for ‘influencing without authority’. I have been thinking about this a lot recently; what it means, what it tells us about the capacity of humans to really collaborate with each other, and sometimes how difficult it is to overcome the personal goals and interests and positional thinking that prevents us from doing so.
Like all really powerful models it works on the principle and mind-set level rather than offering a prescription of approaches or tools. The cornerstone of the model is articulated in the first condition, ‘Assume all are potential allies’. It’s a deceptively simple idea (ideal even) and yet, like many concepts that drive right to the heart of our being, it is often elusive and devilishly difficult to accomplish.

When I look around me, when I think about the work I do, I see so many instances of people struggling with it. We have been working for a while with a global technology company. Often the conversations they want to practice are internal ones where the obvious shared interest (the allegiance) is the benefit of the organisation, the company that both/all the protagonists’ work for. Yet, in so many instances the conversations are riven by ‘enemy’ mind-set, characterised as they often are with mistrust and oppositional agendas; attitudes that seem to be informed by territorialism and competition rather than collaboration and mutual gain.

And I know, from my own experiences how difficult it is to challenge these destructive impulses. Not so long ago I was engaged with a tricky and protracted negotiation with an important client. Throughout the conversations there was continued reference to ‘partnership’ and ‘collaboration’ and ‘shared opportunities’. And yet, it felt, frequently in the subtext of the dialogue, that their approach was positional and competitive. In my worst moments I wondered if I were being manipulated, taken for a ride. I endeavoured to maintain my integrity, to hold onto the values of principled negotiation, of seeing the others in the negotiation as my allies. In doing so, as I looked harder into myself, I began to see that my own behaviours and attitudes were driven by a competitive instinct, that I was seeing the discussions through the filters of my own prejudices and assumptions and that my self-righteousness indignation was, in itself, a form of oppositional position taking.
The pessimist in me wonders if there is something endemic in the human species that drives us toward competition, self-interest and greed; that the misunderstood and misquoted Darwinian notion of ‘survival of the fittest’ might hold some truth in describing the biological (and by extension, psychological) process of natural selection. But this isn’t our default; I am convinced of it. Our natural proclivity is toward collaboration, not competition. Competition is a response that we learn, that is thrust upon us, one that suppresses and distorts our natural instinct to co-operate.

In our ever complex digitally networked global context, the need for collaboration, for diversity, for assuming that all are potential allies is becoming ever more critical. It is through us searching for and re-finding this impulse that we will create the opportunities for humankind to work together, to innovate, to connect, in order to create a better world.
“In the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.” Charles Darwin

* The Influence Model: Using Reciprocity and Exchange to Get What You Need.’ Allan R. Cohen and David L. Bradford; Journal of Organisational Excellence, Winter 2005