Mistrust in alliances

Clearly, not all partnerships are salvageable. Strategic circumstances may have changed or accumulated tensions may make productive discussion impossible.

But if the alliance retains its strategic logic, the partners need to consider jointly how the relationship has veered off course. We sometimes compare this to a medical intervention.

First the partners need to agree on the “shortfallsâ€?. What are the unmet objectives and where has each partner encountered difficulties from working together? The two sides may well highlight different starting points to the conflict and different pivotal events along the way. Indeed, some of the alleged “harmsâ€? by the other party may not even relate to actions, but rather to “sins of omissionâ€? — such as a failure to give sufficient advance warning changes.

Parties will have contributed — albeit in different ways – to creating the situation. They need to explore how divergent work practices may have contributed to mix ups or delays for both partners. Their respective contexts or interests may also have altered over tie. Un-communicated pressures and changes may have driven “the other sideâ€? to behave badly (from your perspective) or rationally (from theirs).

Going forwards, the two parties need to rebuild trust, keep the lines of communication open and remain in tune with how their partner views the alliance. They also need to agree on a process for handling future issues and bringing them up for discussion before they escalate.

In terms of prevention, awareness of the mechanism described in our previous article is already half of the battle. Taken individually, they appear far from insurmountable. But their real power comes from their interaction, which triggers self-fulfilling and self-reinforcing processes, better known as vicious circles.

People working across organizational boundaries need to know about these processes. It helps them to think about their actions from the other party’s perspective and indeed, to monitor their own

behavior, not just the other party’s. It makes executives more resistant to lose labels or snap judgments and mindful of their polarizing and self perpetuating effects. It promotes not just frequent contact, but also the importance of understanding each other’s contexts to avoid personal attributions. And it underlines the need for feedback forums where emerging problems can be expressed and dealt with early.

Beyond awareness, if there is one overriding principle for avoiding such situations, it is to invest early. The partners need to devote time to clarifying the conditions and rules and sharing information and norms. But they also need to invest in the relationship, to establish a buffer of trust that will be easier to confront sensitive issues.

Bad dynamics often take root early on. After that, partners may expend a lot of time and energy trying to salvage the situation, often to little avail. We would urge partners to invest more time up front in order to set up more positive dynamics in the first place.