During my long concluded, nearly four-decade career as a community destination marketing exec I made it a practice to organize strategic partnerships, especially during the latter half.
This was both as a means of sharing the experience of the organizations I led with others, but also to leverage synergy that was mutually beneficial to the partnerships and the three communities I represented.
Some were one-off projects with another organization, some involved as many as twenty different intra-community organizations which met monthly and worked to execute strategic initiatives. Some involved peer organizations in other communities with common values.
But overall, the average partnership involved about four or five organizations. In common was that all participants were involved with the community I represented as a place or among similar communities.
Also in common is that they were intended to be gatherings of equals, although often as the convener, my organization facilitated. Frankly, an underlying objective was to preempt predatory organizational behavior.
Initially, the partnerships were organized as a tactical sideline to my job as a CEO, but seeing the results, during the final decade of my career my governing board incorporated it as one of my five weighted overarching performance objectives.
I recall many years ago, a friend and I walked to our cars after a particularly difficult meeting involving a handful of partner organizations. We had been friends a long time but rarely shared anything as personal as he was about to tell me.
He started by giving me the compliment that I was the most resilient person he had ever known. Then he said that he didn’t know how I stayed that way when it seemed so frequent that one or more partners who had agreed to align would then betray that agreement.
I hadn’t thought about it, but as I drove away his comment caused me to reflect on how often I had experienced betrayal over the course of my career representing three different cities. Inside, I felt anything but stoic during those occasions.
Each betrayal marked a momentary low but I realized that by resilient, he meant that I not only bounced back quickly but never retaliated. Working on mutually beneficial solutions I suppose requires a suspension of disbelief similar to anything reliant on trust.
But I also believe my resilience steadily grew more muscular over the arc of my career. At least in part, it is a learned trait and I got a lot of practice.
I realized during my reflection that day and periodically since then, that in nearly every instance of betrayal from a strategic partner during my four-decade career, I liked and often admired the people involved. In some instances they were friends.
In fact, perhaps due to my resilience, after the betrayal they often continued to act as though we were still friends, at least to my face, although rarely did we ever actually clear the air.
A condition of betrayal requires a good dose of denial.
Over the years, I came to learn not to take offense. In the larger sense, partnership betrayal by others isn’t in any way about you. It is about them. More on how later.
Maybe experiencing betrayal is common for anyone trying to achieve objectives through coalitions or partnerships, but this aspect sure wasn’t a topic ever raised that I can recall in management courses, books, conferences or workshops I attended.
Even in studies, euphemisms such as “defection” are used. Maybe it should be taught and discussed more overtly, and not just in the context of ethics.
Below I’ll get into some things I wish I had known or better understood earlier in my career.
But first, here are some traits of proven and loyal collaborators that I gleaned early in my career from the classic book by noted ethologist Dr. Richard Dawkins entitled The Selfish Gene, followed in 1986 by the related documentary entitled from the last chapter as Nice Guys Finish First:
- They are never the first to defect, if ever.
- They are not envious.
- They are forgiving, not retaliating.
- They have a clear cut understanding of win-win.
I would add after re-reading the book recently, that reliable partners are also able to dissent openly and resolve conflict not only with other partners but with people in their respective organizations who may push them to defect on partners.
Now, in no particular order, based on my reflection and a handful of other studies, here are ten ways to detect those prone to betray alignments and collaborations.
I never became very good as using these observations strategically or to preempt defection. In my field, you didn’t get to be very selective about strategic partners.
- People who defect see the world through a lens where everything is either their way or your way. To make things happen they believe someone else always has to lose. They despise tables of equals unless they can dominate.
- Defectors are easily bored, in the negative sense of that term. They agree to alignments when the stakes are low and only when things are certain.
- They are deeply discomforted by uncertainty about the future. To relieve this, their goals become their identity which blinds them to any new information or a better or even third way
- They are generalists, prone to perpetual mission creep. Success at one thing makes them feel entitled to feel expert at everything and to dabble where others do have expertise, again as a means to avoid uncertainty.
- They are narcissistic, not just at the place on the continuum where nearly all leaders emerge but to the extreme, beyond any link to effectiveness leaving a need to constantly self report their own.
- They have trouble listening unless they are seeking something. They have trouble maintaining eye contact unless they are talking or there is an agenda.
- Uncomfortable with the uncertainty of exchange, they respond to questions with a monologue and often limit social interaction for its own sake unless they can dominate.
- They are prone to cronyism and cabals and often make decisions based on “who’s asking.” They thrive on the push and shove of lobbying.
- They are prone to “goalodicy,” a type of obsessive groupthink where individuals and groups become so wedded to a goal that they succumb to zero sum, and pursue any means to reach the end as long it is not at their expense.
- In general, this means they are restless, dislike informing discussion with ideas and concepts, because they are obsessed with having certainty or avoiding uncertainly at any cost to others.
During my career, I often used the true story of the Christmas Truce between two opposing units in 1915 during World War I to illustrate that even under extreme conditions, people can work together to mutual benefit.
Small area truces such as this occurred throughout the war when opposing soldiers learned to send and interpret unofficial signals.
But it is unrealistic to assume the same of strategic partners. During those moments during World War I, many other units intensified the carnage even at the expense of their own troops.
There are definitely parts of my career that I don’t miss.