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January 12, 2015

Who's Got Your Back? Turning Rivals Into Allies

Rachel Salaman

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Morag-BarrettHow are your relationships at work? Are they all good, or could some of them be improved?

Most of us have at least one difficult work relationship, but the prospect of turning it around often feels daunting. Anything that involves emotions at work can be a minefield, and a lot of the advice out there lurches towards the touchy-feely, which can put some people off.

However, in her new book “Cultivate: The Power of Winning Relationships,” Morag Barrett offers a practical, no-nonsense approach to building collaboration at work.

Barrett, a former banker from the U.K. who is now a successful business consultant in Colorado, says that “Cultivate” grew out of workshops she developed for her clients. It builds on a simple idea that all our workplace relationships can be described in four ways: ally, supporter, rival, and adversary.

This approach enables people to view relationships in a more rational, less emotional way, which helps them to identify and then solve problems. “I grew up in finance back in the U.K. My first 15 years were spent looking at the numbers side of business and I remember being told, ‘It’s not personal, it’s a business’,” Barrett explains.

“As I happen now to work in my consulting firm with a lot of technology and engineering and IT and finance organizations, where it’s process and systems first, what I wanted to do with these dynamics is create a language and framework that makes the intangible tangible.”

The framework is easy to understand. Allies have your back. They offer unconditional support, and we all need at least one of them. Supporters are there for you sometimes, but not always. Rivals are more interested in competing with you than supporting you. And adversaries cause all sorts of problems.

If we can turn some of our adversaries, rivals, and even supporters into allies, we’ll get more done and feel better at work. This can help fuel growth and performance.

Turning relationship dynamics around may not be easy or comfortable, but Barrett asserts that it’s worth the effort. It comes down to articulating the rules of engagement. “We focus very much on what needs to be delivered in business. What we don’t tend to do is sit down and talk about how we’re going to deliver those results,” she says.

"You should be asking, 'How do our roles intersect? How are we going to make decisions and who’s going to make what decisions? When we’ve got bad news, because invariably mistakes happen and things don’t go to plan, how can we best bring that to each other’s attention? And if I disagree, how do I disagree with you in a way that increases learning and strengthens the relationship, but doesn’t damage it?'

“Often that’s misperceived as being the soft, fluffy side of work, and we don’t need to do this. Well, yes we do, because with every new team, every new project, it is a different set of rules and, if we don’t articulate those rules, is it any wonder that we’re sitting there in meetings gnashing our teeth, drumming our fingers on the table or going home to our significant other and going, ‘You won’t believe what happened at work today!’ All of those are signs that the rules of engagement haven’t been articulated.”

So, if you want to turn a supporter into an ally, talk to them about it. Present yourself as their ally and you may find that you gain one in return. “Sitting down and letting people know you have their back, that your goal is to make them as successful as you can, because in doing so it impacts your success positively, is a great start in moving supporters to becoming allies,” Barrett explains.

Barrett also devotes a chapter of her book to the importance of being your own ally. In this audio clip from our Expert Interview, she outlines a kind of virtuous circle: if you can be an ally to yourself and quash self doubt, you’re more likely to be an ally to others, and thereby win more allies to your side. So first, ditch the trash talk.

Listen to the full 30-minute interview ¦ Install Flash Player.

You need guts, humility and emotional intelligence to turn around a bad work relationship. “Cultivate: The Power of Winning Relationships” provides a framework and a road map for people who are willing to try. Listen to the full 30-minute interview here.

Question: Do you have allies at work, or adversaries? Are you enough of an ally yourself? Tell us your stories of how you turned a struggling relationship around.


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