The underdog, according to Collins English Dictionary is the party
” in a competition or situation is the person who seems least likely to succeed or win.”
We all love a good underdog story don’t we? Certainly the plethora of Hollywood productions on underdogs winning the day indicates it’s a popular storyline.
And in real life? Is it naïve to believe in the weaker party in a conflict winning over the stronger? Certainly I was frequently given that impression or that feedback; it was clear others thought I wore rose tinted glasses when believing that, in the end, positions and people who worked for betterment, driving what connects people, upholding kindness, humanity and solidarity would succeed over those that sowed division, hatred and aggression. And before we get too philosophical, as even I am aware there are plenty of examples to the contrary out there, I would like to share my experience of coaching what some might consider the underdog in a conflict recently where the more positive, appreciative, open and agile approach won out, one might say.
Forming a business relationship.
Not wanting to traipse out the somewhat tired story of David and Goliath, I will labour a comparison of ocean liners and small sailing boats. Let’s say a few of the sailing boats worked together in a small to medium operation, having been hired by a company of many hundred ocean liners. They were to create a new product, taking over transport paths too small for the liners. In order to set up the business relationship, a small group of sailing boats met up with two ocean liners a year before kicking off the service, in order to work together on what exactly was needed and how to provide a good product. The exact targets were not set yet; some aspects of the operations could not be fixed until end-customers had become involved.
Storming into business
Initial alignment between the liners and sail boats was not going well. The two liners in question were accustomed to nailing down project goals before working on sub-steps, while the sail boats were raring to figure out what the first steps, initial routes and potential customers could be. They wanted to get dug in, while the liners were greatly concerned that starting before knowing what you worked towards was not wise, safe or effective. After trying several different approaches, the little sail boats started to lose some of their energy. They were frustrated with being told that their way of doing things was all wrong. The liners were, similarly, feeling that they were not heard, and feeling pressured to give up a way of working they had won dear and relied on. Things got heated.
Supporting teams in conflict is a key leadership skill.
Things got so heated that the sail boats reached out for help at their central harbour, making use of maintenance services offered in order to deal with the impacts of the conflict. They were used to working in an atmosphere of appreciation and clear and compassionate conflict resolutions. What they were encountering was more harsh, aggressive and taking its toll. They got their sail boat leadership involved. Conversations were had with the liners one-on-one. The sail boats tried to communicate that they wanted to work in an environment driven by respect. More conversations were had. The management of the liners got involved. After each meeting it looked like things were improving for a couple weeks and then old habits re-emerged.
Norming for your team.
Finally the sail boats’ leaders and the liners’ management decided to call for a general conflict workshop. With everyone around the table, the liners’ leaders made clear they supported the sail boats’ way-of-working, and had chosen to enter the business relationship for that reason. The sail boat leaders clearly stated what was acceptable and ok for them and their team, and what was not. They developed a feedback system, giving the sail boats the possibility to address all their issues and supporting small development steps with the liners. Plenty of oars were crossed. 😊
Performing with your team.
In a completely ideal world I would be telling you now that the liners took a small step at a time and worked towards communicating clearly, appreciatively and compassionately with the sail boats. Unfortunately that did not happen. What did happen was that the liners’ management saw what was happening in real time and decided, for the good of the project, the business relationship, and, last but not least, for the liners, to find a more fitting harbour for them to work from. The sail boats were given the full backing no only by their leadership, much like servant leadership, but also by their customer’s management to proceed as they had done. Free from the restraints caused by the conflicts, the sail boats went full “steam” ahead, developing and putting in the new operations, one step at a time, fulfilling their potential.
The energy released by the support and appreciation they had received from their leadership and their customer propelled them towards new levels.
I am so proud and pleased to have been able to support the sail boats in this process, helping them reflect on the conflict, establish what was important to them and encourage them to stick to all this, even in the face of strong opposition. They could not have done this without the support from their leadership, who made it clear not just in words but in actions that they were not about to sacrifice the way-of-working in their business even if it might have meant losing a big customer. In my experience this is not at all a given in today’s business world and I am so proud to support the value-based leadership shown here.