It’s also a cheap trick.
What makes it cheap is that results are temporary and ultimately backfire as well.
Leaders choose “common enemy” strategies because they
- rapidly point people in a common direction and
- excite people into action
And, yes, these are two critical measures for determining if your team is built (see Leadership Skills: How To Know If Your Team Is Built.)
However, there are dire and usually unintended consequences for achieving these ends using a “common enemy” tactic.
The two largest risks stem from the “us-versus-them” context because it:
- Creates impermeable boundaries and halts information flow in and out of a team. How? The energizing fear of suspicion and paranoia simultaneously clamps off communication. People evaluate ALL others as either “for us or against us,” so anyone not obviously on the team is assumed to be the enemy. Even loyal team members who operate on the boundary can become mistrusted and accused of treason due to low visibility within your team.
- Focuses on a “surrogate” outcome instead of genuine achievement. How so? While win/lose is an intoxicating game, it’s possible to beat a “common enemy” without adding an ounce of value to your customer or improving your score. To facilitate winning “common enemy” strategies often employ unethical marketing, corporate politics, or even espionage. Such tactics make the competitor “king” in your team’s mind instead of the customer.
Reach Beyond a “Common Enemy” for a Sustainable Goal
Need an example? During the ’70s, Ford, GM and Chrysler each had stated missions to “beat the other two.” They then beat on each other — while others stole the market out from under them all.
So, what alignment and empowerment strategies really work? Leaders with strong Leadership Gift skills will reach beyond “common enemies” for a lasting goal that expands opportunity and well-being at every level of a team or organization.
It’s okay to use a “common enemy” as a launch pad to brainstorming for a better goal. But when you’ve identified a common enemy ask, “What about this race is so important that we and our competitor(s) are both in it?” Also explore, “What customer benefits lie beyond the us-versus-them-battle?” and “What sustainable team purpose stands on the other side of this competition?”
If you’ll reach just a bit farther, your search is sure to uncover a larger and more expansive goal for your team — one that can supply plenty of direction and energy without the risks and ultimately dire consequences of beating out a “common enemy.”
Get Started With This Week’s 5-Minute Leadership Gift Stretch
Reflect on your recent team experiences. Underneath the hype, which of them actually had a goal of beating a “common enemy?”
Identify the unintended consequences on the team’s interaction. What might have been an alternative, unifying goal?
Then visualize yourself reaching past the “common enemy” tactic. What can you do differently next time to achieve a more substantive outcome?
Feel free to share your insights or ask a question about this post!
Christopher Avery, PhD, is a recognized authority on how individual and shared responsibility works in the mind and an advisor to leaders worldwide. Build a responsible team (or family) and master your leadership skills with The Leadership Gift Program for Leaders.