Why the people in our lives are both friend and foe

Although many people see the downside of competitiveness, there are potential costs associated with cooperation as well.

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Although people tend to view the people in their lives through either a competitive or cooperative lens, Columbia Business School professor Adam Galinsky argues this is both overly simplistic and inaccurate. Friend & Foe: When to Cooperate, When to Compete, and How to Succeed at Both, which was co-authored with Wharton Professor Maurice Schweitzer, is designed to help people “recognise that every cooperative relationship has the seeds of competition while at the same time remembering that competitive relationships still have the opportunity for cooperation. It’s not about being better at cooperation or competition. It’s about getting better at finding the balance between the two.”

Although many people see the downside of competitiveness, there are potential costs associated with cooperation, which can surprisingly extend to our negotiation partner. As Galinsky explains, “if someone makes us an offer and, in the spirit of cooperation, we accept it out of the gate, this can actually backfire because the other person will likely feel their initial offer wasn’t strong enough. They would actually feel better if you demanded concessions and there was some back and forth because it is more representative of a typical negotiation.”

Our close relationships tend to compromise our ability to learn and practice these skills because we are worried about coming across as competitive or otherwise hurting the relationship. This is why research has shown that two friends negotiating together tend to reach less efficient deals than two strangers. However, when both parties can be honest and open with each other about what they want, they maximize the chances of both parties being happier.

Galinsky shared a personal example where he had a direct opportunity to put these skills into practice. “I got married around the time the book came out and my wife and I had a lot of competing feelings about exactly what our wedding should like. Taking a cue from the book, we sat down and openly shared the things that were most important to us and we found a way to maximize what each of us wanted. We were both very happy with our wedding as a result because we knew what each other wanted.”

Although people sometimes try to compensate for the potential downsides of cooperation by being more competitive, this can also create major problems. In a clever chapter entitled, “It’s Good to be King….. Until It Isn’t” Galinsky shows how too much self-focus can cause the powerful to lose their position of authority. “Kings often lose their favour and eventually their power because they’re not cooperative enough.”

Striking the right balance can seem like a challenging and potentially impossible puzzle to solve. However, Galinsky believes one skill, perspective-taking, is crucial to help us navigate this complex landscape. Unfortunately, many people don’t employ this powerful technique because they mistakenly assume that understanding the perspective of others will cause them to abandon their own interests.

Leaders are particularly at a high-risk of falling victim to this trap because power fundamentally transforms our basic psychological processes. Based on almost two decades of his own research, Galinsky has found “high and low power people occupy very different psychological worlds. In its purest form, power is a psychological accelerator. It makes people feel more optimistic, see the big picture, and take more robust action.”

However, despite these benefits, “the problem with power is that it also takes away our psychological steering wheel in that we lose perspective-taking. This makes sense because powerful people have more things to think about and are less dependent on others, so they pay less attention to the other people around them.”

The disconnect between the psychological orientations of the more and less powerful can create many problems at work. For example, when a boss simply walks by in the hall and casually asks an employee to come by their office later, the employee immediately starts feeling anxious and wonders. Am I going to get fired? Did I do something wrong? This creates a great deal of tension, even if it is unintended.

Galinsky believes that once the powerful recognize this blind spot and engage in more effective perspective-taking, it can lead to stronger and more effective working relationships. Building on the last example, rather than ask the employee to come to your office, explain why. For example, let the person know you have an idea for a concept you would like to discuss with them or you want to go over the latest marketing campaign.’ That specificity really helps alleviate anxiety.

Galinsky’s research and insights have led him to speak with corporate audiences around the world. He says this notion of the importance of perspective-taking is one that continually hits home. “Perspective-taking solves a lot of problems. It helps the powerful maintain their power. It helps us apologise effectively. It helps us know when to be vulnerable. It helps us be better entrepreneurs because we know when to jump in by taking the perspective of competitors and customers. It helps us know how and when to be ambitious in negotiations. People understand the powerful role perspective taking plays in solving a lot of this cooperation/competition dilemma.”

Craig Dowden (PhD) is president of Craig Dowden & Associates, a firm focused on supporting clients in achieving leadership and organizational excellence by leveraging the science of peak performance. Dowden delivers evidence-based executive coaching and leadership development training to his clients.

His first book, Do Good to Lead Well – The Science and Practice of Positive Leadership, will be published by Forbes in February 2019. You can connect with him by email or LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @craigdowden.

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