Negotiating on the Same Side of the Table

by Michelle Randall

Imagine a basketball team, split over passionate differences in strategy, refusing to work together, even taunting each other during a big game. This team would be stealing the ball from its own players who would be blocking shots made by their own teammates, fouling and pushing each other out-of-bounds. In short, it would be a game of perplexing alliances or, even worse, a game of one-on-one-on-one-on-one. Would a team like this have a chance of winning a game? Most likely not. In fact in a game with fractured teams scoring on their own teammates, how would you even determine the winner? Would fans (if there were any) buy tickets? Would they show up for the game? With this as a political reality would voters actually show up at the polls?

This game playing isn’t lost on a dissatisfied electorate. The electorate wants, and gets excited about, effective government; yet partisans in political leadership have been exhibiting traits that would get them kicked out of the leadership of any public company. Power struggling, undermining each other, hoarding authority are perceived as the weaknesses of middle management. This behavior is rarely exhibited, let alone tolerated, at the highest levels of successful corporations. Now in our political system as well there is a growing weariness for divisive leadership, and polarizing leaders are seen as self-aggrandizing, petty, corrupt, and dangerous. The electorate is tired of ineffectual leaders who are more focused on themselves and their party warfare than on outstanding governance.

We believe that political leadership is a series of negotiations on the same side of the table. To be clear, a team doesn’t have to agree on everything. In fact, in a democracy it’s important that it doesn’t. This form of government is based in the belief that it’s crucial to pursue healthy debate so that minority opinions are heard and all representatives are able to make their highest contributions. When public collaboration is true teamwork, ideological opponents recognize that they are negotiating on the same side of the table. They then consistently place ego aside to constructively use the best of each other’s ideas and inputs. This vision of collaboration makes party partisans archaic, their obstructive tactics abandoned in favor of thoughtful and productive opposition.

Very often, however this scenario doesn’t describe business as usual and when communication has broken down into scandal, city leaders call upon our mediation and coaching in order to learn to work together. We provide a methodology for reframing the process toward collaboration and teamwork. We’ve found that successful political leaders make their contribution to graceful teamwork through a mastery of personal leadership – the ability to lead yourself. In our coaching work with individual team members, we focus on five key aspects of personal leadership: self-knowledge and self-management, humility, courageous risk-taking, open-minded listening, and mutual respect. We start with three modules focused on the clients’ internal work – and follow up with two modules in which our clients are engaging others. All modules are key elements in developing emotional intelligence – evolving the capacity to lead this kind of change and craft your lasting contribution – and we discuss them here.

When political leaders make the effort to really work these principles they get a reputation. Respect grows among their colleagues, which turns into genuine collaboration. Engaged citizens become enamored with a politician who meets their hopes for leadership, and exceeds their expectations. When a broken team soaked in scandal really works these principles we find ourselves happily out of a job.

And if you are reading this on your own and thinking that your institution or organization is too broken to turn things around without some sort of intervention then remember: One person with a vision can be an incredibly powerful force. Cultivate allies who share your vision and your impact becomes stronger. Enough momentum to create a tipping point is created when as little as 3% of the people are on board. It takes only one individual with vision, courage, and determination to bring that 3% together.


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