Knowing Your Opponent

It goes without saying that in conflict, one should focus on who is on the other side. It is obvious, right? It is obvious, and yet we often don’t.

Two examples.

During the US adventure in Afghanistan, the US thought it was fighting the Taliban. That, of course, seemed like a mismatch. Now, as the US prepares to pull out of Afghanistan in frustration after years and years of conflict, we begin to see who the real enemy was. It was an enemy inside Pakistan who the Americans had thought was a friend. It was the enemy who provided institutional support for the Taliban. And who is waiting for the US to pull out.

During the cold war, the west understood who the enemy was. It was “communist countries” most notably the USSR. Then the cold war ended. The USSR became Russia and gave up its communist ideology. Was it no longer an adversary? Well, it seemed that things had changed. But suddenly in 2014 Russia has invaded Ukraine and the west is caught flat footed. Perhaps we got it wrong in the first place.

My point here is a rather simple one. Knowing who your opponent is means more than identifying a person or an institution who poses a barrier to getting what you want. The reason is that we don’t fight against people.

After Crimea

Mr. Putin just announced to the Duma that Russia was annexing Crimea in order to protect the ethnic Russians who live there. It is a done deal. But it is not. The reason it is not a done deal goes to the argument underlying the decision. If it is legitimate to protect ethnic Russians living outside Russia by ignoring national borders, many countries bordering Russia find themselves suddenly at risk.

Right or wrong, one can see how this rash action has opened the door to a longer term conflict and it is very difficult to predict how this will turn out for all who now cannot avoid being part of it.

Conflict is like that.

You Can’t Always Get What You Want

So sang Mick Jagger, though it appeared at the time that he was getting just about everything that he wanted. But he was right. The rest of us usually have to settle for less. And this frustration is a key aspect of conflict. We want, perhaps even need something but we cannot get it.

Think about this for a second. The more that you believe you need something, the more frustrated you get by being denied, right? So if you have never seen a car, you won’t crave a sports car. You might crave a beautiful horse instead. But once you are exposed to the storyline of what cars symbolize — stuff like freedom, status and so on — can you blame people for starting to believe that they need one?

Of course not. And this is the starting point of conflict. Notice how it can be created, used and overcome. Interesting!

Is Jeff Bezos Evil?

He seems like such a nice guy in interviews. But when you get behind the mask, Jeff Bezos is a very tough customer. In some ways similar to Steve Jobs (who may have been even tougher). So is this a bad thing or is this toughness — or if you want to be more polite, competitiveness — a necessary condition for success?

It is a critical question and the answer is more complex than it appears on the surface. First we should separate out nastiness from toughness. Being nasty is destructive of firm culture. As Sharpe put it in the TV series “Flogged men don’t stand and fight”. So we are not talking about deliberately causing embarrassment or pain (as former GE CEO, Jack Welch apparently enjoyed doing to his top managers).¬† But ruling out nastiness is just the first step.

The other extreme, softness, is equally ineffective. Sorry Roger Fisher and Bill Ury, when you are always striving to build relationships based on rational interest correlating, you can get royally “owned”. Just ask Barrack Obama about his experience “negotiating” with Congressional Republicans about raising the debt ceiling.

The fact is that Bezos and Jobs and other “tough customers” understand something about conflict. It is not always bad. Certain types of conflict¬† — those that produce higher stakes in collaboration — are needed to build focus. There is no way around this.

Crimea and Beyond

We should have seen it coming, right? Well, no one idd. No one expected that Mr. Putin would act as decisively (and perhaps rashly) as he did. Oops! But whatever happens next, we (in Europe and the US) need to accept something. We are no longer in the same situation we were just a short while ago. We are now in conflict. And it is time to pull out the conflict management tools.