A strategy is, in its most basic form, an approach to a problem or opportunity. There are corporate strategies, military strategies, financial strategies, and so on. Entire academic disciplines have grown up around strategy and countless volumes have been written on the subject. Strategy development is a particularly hot topic in business circles. But what most of us fail to realize – including those charged with formulating and implementing business strategy – is that we all have strategies we apply every day, unconsciously. More importantly, these strategies are most likely working against you, robbing you or your team, group or business of creative vitality, energy, and opportunity.
These same strategies may have worked in the past, perhaps very recently. But there’s a point at which they inevitably stop serving you and start undermining you. These are the strategies we employ to serve our individual needs in dealing with other people.
To give a personal example, I’ve noticed that my strategy for avoiding the discomfort of asking others for help (and the possible disappointment of getting a “no” for my efforts) is to try to do everything by myself. I justify it by telling myself, “It will take much longer to explain what I want done anyway.” Clearly at some point this rugged individualism must have worked for me; it may have strengthened my self-esteem, proving (to myself if no one else) that I could Do It, whatever “It” is. And so I continued to apply it, long past the point where the DIY mindset was helpful. I still find myself falling back on it again and again even though it comes at a tremendous cost in terms of my energy levels, focus, and ultimately my ability to generate results. I’m pulled in too many directions, and it’s unsustainable.
The good news and the bad news is that I’m not alone in this.
That directive, command-and-control leadership style you’ve mastered may have worked well in some instances; it can be efficient and effective in times of crisis when quick, decisive action is required. (A fire is no time for long, drawn-out consensus-building meetings.) But over time your employees have probably come to resent it, and you may never know it because they’ll never tell you. That same approach deprives your staff of their autonomy, a sense of achievement and satisfaction they might otherwise experience identifying opportunities or solving problems on their own initiative. Their all-important sense of purpose and mission is greatly diminished when they need to do things just because the boss says to do it.
Similarly, your hard-driving, competitive negotiation skills have probably won you many a contract (and perhaps some praise from your superiors), but you may have also noticed that those contracts are seldom renewed. That’s because over time, the unyielding toughness has extracted a heavy price from the other party and weakened the relationship. Your counterparts get tired of being doormats, so they look elsewhere to do business. You can see how the very strategies that serve us well in some situations can be highly counterproductive, or even destructive, in others.
Strategies come in many forms
Self-defeating strategies aren’t just the province of Type A bosses. The quiet, self-effacing avoidance behaviour of the team player that means you never have to step into the discomfort of potential conflict also means being unable to express your feelings and needs to the people who most need to hear it, whether it’s your boss, significant other, or collaborator. Internalizing it eventually takes a heavy toll in the form of stress, illness, absenteeism, or other physical manifestation.
Strategies are developed or adopted subconsciously, so they come in so many different forms. Chronic lateness, for example, may give some people a critical sense of control over their lives – a covert way of saying, “I’ll show up when I damn well want to”. For others, habitually showing up late for meetings or rehearsals may be a mechanism for getting attention, because even negative attention is better than being completely ignored. It’s no wonder strategies are hard to recognize for what they really are.
Chances are the strategy is intended to meet a need from Maslow’s classic hierarchy (e.g. safety/security, love/belonging/acceptance, status, self-actualization, etc.). It’s hard to identify the underlying need when the outward behaviour (i.e., the strategy) is so confounding. We often incorrectly attribute it to something else. For example, we may ascribe a team member’s chronic lateness to laziness or disorganization. But beware of labels. Mostly these are really symptoms masking a bigger issue.
Strategies meet needs
Regardless of their particular form, each of these strategies manifests as a series of behaviours and is designed to get us something we want or need. And these strategies have a way of alienating the very people we need to work with on a regular basis.
So why do we continue to use them? Think of an infant who, unable to use language, cries when in need of food, burping or a diaper change. When it works, the infant begins to rely on the behaviour to meet its other needs, too. But like the man who, armed only with a hammer, begins to see every problem as a nail, a baby will continue to respond to every situation by crying because they simply haven’t developed a more sophisticated approach. Adults aren’t much better at developing new, more appropriate strategies, especially when the tried and true keep working — however dysfunctionally and fraught with unintended side-effects. We develop ruts in our neural problem-solving pathways.
In our book (which, as many readers have told us, is written for a specific audience but is much more broadly applicable) we discuss strategies and how they serve needs in the context of conflict between creative people. These needs often boil down to a variation on one of a few basic ones: the need to be heard, feel validated, acknowledged, appreciated, to win, etc. The conclusion is very much the same: the behaviours we adopt in conflict situations are designed to meet certain needs and, to the extent they might achieve this goal, they’re successful. But they eventually derail even the best and brightest of individuals and teams. If not already in conflict, eventually these strategies will bring them into conflict with others, and that’s when things really get messy.
Our job, then, is to learn to decode these strategies, and to discover and satisfy the unmet needs, whether our own or the other person’s (if not both). This is not easy and requires skill-building. And it’s as critical to your own long-term career success – and that of your group, team or business – as any other strategic issue.