Powerful people will usually work to protect their power base. They will also look to expand. Even if their motives are pure, they will still seek to protect their capability to do good things. The difference that selfishness makes will be felt in the personal consequences for those involved — at worst, they will stop at nothing until they have got what they want.
Wherever you care to look, there will be competition of some sort going on. The intensity and tactics will vary depending on the players, the motives and the stakes. Simple enough, but what can you do if you find yourself caught in the middle? Getting trapped between two powerful opposing forces, who each want you on their side, is what we called the political dilemma of Turf Wars.
The advice I wrote in 2008 as part of our book, Political Dilemmas at Work, still holds good. It focused on the imperative to make a clear personal decision and outlined four options to consider…
- Stay Neutral: by making it clear to both parties that you are not going to side with either and become involved in their Turf Wars.
- Compete: recognising that there is another solution in Turf Wars where you could beat both of them by joining in the competition.
- Facilitate a Resolution: facilitate an early resolution of the Turf Wars so you can all get back to work.
- Take Sides: make it clear whose side you favour and help them to win.
There is much to think about against each of these options. There are pros and cons to each one, and some of the risks can be high. So, careful preparation and consultation with friends (and mentors) is vital.
To compete is often the option that is never considered. I think the reason for this is that, by the nature of the dilemma, you are clearly in a less powerful and usually, but not always, a less senior position. Although the likelihood of you deciding to compete is probably quite low, if you are ambitious, think it through. Just by giving it serious consideration you will learn and develop. If you cannot do it now, what needs to change for you to have the confidence to step up and join in?
The most popular option is actually not on the list above — “Do Nothing”. Of course that is always an option, but Political Dilemmas at Work was a book about turning difficult situations into opportunities, so it didn’t quite fit with our mission. There are several things that are troublesome with doing nothing in this dilemma.
Firstly, your dilemma will continue to worsen until somebody wins. During that time, your work will suffer. Being pulled in two directions is never comfortable, so get ready for increasing levels of stress (and the knock-on effects on health and family). The final thing wrong with doing nothing is that it is no way for an ambitious and capable professional to conduct themselves.
Sure, you have to be careful. Yes, you have to have the skills. And yes, the organisation you work for will be expecting you to do your best. If you keep your motives pure, work for the best of all concerned, you should be prepared to step up to these dilemmas and deal with them. Until you do, you are always at risk of getting caught in the middle!