Why Should You Keep Your Friends Close, But Your Enemies Closer?

It wasn’t the Godfather’s Michael Corleone who first uttered this well-known dictum. Actually, it came from Machiavelli in “The Prince,” the definitive primer for how to be a dictator. You’d think that with my easy-going optimism, I’d never write a blog on this subject.  But, au contraire!

CorleoneAs a manager or leader it is inevitable that we’ll want to add to our knowledge base, try to sell ideas, get people on board and even change the direction of our organization. One of the involved persons just might be your enemy. That’s my basic rationale for acting on Machiavelli’s instinct.

In the business setting, I refer to “enemy” as a person you have to interact with, someone who’s competing for your resources, who doesn’t follow through on his commitments, whom you don’t trust, with whom the “chemistry” isn’t there, or who disagrees with your perspective from the ground up. These are also people whom you’ll need in order to get your own personal and organizational objectives met. As both a manager and a consultant, I’ve found a number of people who fit in that same box. In short, I’ve found Machiavelli very useful for my own success.

But there are a number of exceedingly important reasons for keeping your enemies close:

1.    You can learn a lot from people you dislike. Indeed, my best learning doesn’t always come from friends. Often it’s from opponents, adversaries or fence-sitters. They bring a different worldview, perspective and/or ideas on a subject of common interest. There are plenty of times when such a person can help to better my thinking and position on an issue.

2.    You have to keep your enemies close to understand their perspective and interests. One of the persuasion strategies I learned from Bill Howell at UMN years ago was the importance of creating a highly representative “panel” of about six people who would represent the diversity of commitments or opinions on an issue. If I could frame my proposal in such a way to satisfy the self-interests of each of those six, I was well on the way toward success. That demand, of course, meant that each person had to be close enough to me to be well understood. Truthfully, I usually understood my enemies better than my friends.

3.    When your enemies are close, it’s easier for your allies to work with you. Allies are often the least helpful in analyzing your ideas. Furthermore, your allies may have just as much difficulty with your enemy as you, and that’s part of the reason you’re friends. But your allies will respect you and find it easier to work with you if they know you really understand the lay of the land–and how to appeal to your enemy’s self-interest.

Determining the motives of your enemy involves a significant amount of guesswork. One of the best ways to get to know that person is to listen to how he goes about persuading others. People want the world to be congruous with their expectations and in line with their predictions. So when they attempt to persuade others, they use tactics that would be persuasive to them. Observe them, listen to them and analyze what they say and how they say it. From that you can often figure out their interests and their values.

Finally, it needs to be said that you can’t keep your enemy close to you unless you know how to disagree agreeably, understand and share at least some of your enemy’s interests or values, are sometimes transparent with your differences and are willing to interact with that person in a social situation. In such settings it’s important to find out what that person wants that you can give them. Secondly, it’s just as important to figure out the resources you have to offer them in order that they’ll give you what you want. Don’t forget that some of the resources each of us has are information and contacts.

In sum, if you dig deep enough, there are always a few interests and values you share with your enemies. Most of us like to talk about our differences, but in reality we are all far more alike than different. Inherently also, that means that you know how to really converse. But this also implies that you can listen and observe as though that person is the only other person on the planet. Machiavelli is front lobe stuff: keep your friends close and your enemies closer.

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