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Peers and Power Are a Potent Mix

Layne McDonald. Ph.D.

Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection, we can catch excellence. - Vince Lombardi

Excerpted from the forthcoming The Truth About Being a Leader and Nothing but The Truth

Have you ever walked into a high school locker room or a martial arts class? The smell that hits you is that of competition and sweat. In meeting rooms in organizations around the world, the dynamics, if not the aroma, are similar, as peers jockey for power in an adult version of a sports competition.

It is no accident that on feedback questionnaires of all kinds, peers tend to mark each other below scores received from bosses and direct reports.

When you enter a leadership role, you must realize that the game has changed, and your new peers may now see you as a competition.

It is usually not personal. A certain amount of distrust is natural because now or in the future, you and your peers will be in direct competition for roles, resources, and rewards. And it is okay, indeed healthy, to develop some caution about the motivation and moves of your peers. Otherwise, you could be in for a nasty surprise.

Consider Albert, who relied on another department’s research and fact-finding capabilities. He soon found that their reports could be biased and did not give his group enough information.

Frustrated, he openly complained about the research department and refused to continue using their reports. But Albert soon realized he was burning bridges with his actions. He backed off and approached the problem differently.

Using feedback gleaned from asking his clients what they thought, he let the research department know how the biases and omissions in their earlier reports had upset his clients. The research department recognized and responded to the need to cooperate when the emphasis was on serving clients, not helping peers and competitors.

Given that resources are usually stretched, and the interests of departments often do not coincide, developing trust with peers is tricky. Ideally, faith comes from knowing that a peer can put the organization’s interests before their own and will give credit to other departments taking total ownership.

But do not take it for granted that a peer will always act this way. Establish clear guidelines and expectations for your work together. For instance, if you must split a commission, agree on the percentage split in advance. And constantly check your joint efforts, giving quick feedback about what works and is not if your peers’ work diverges from the framework you set up.

In Albert’s case, he found that supplying clear guidelines and expectations backed by others was the first step in creating a good peer group relationship. He also learned that he had to constantly communicate with and evaluate the research team to be sure they were working toward compatible goals.

Remember, a peer today may be a boss tomorrow. Keep it clean, and keep it clean, and you will be happy that you did.

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