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Dealing with ‘Empire Builders’ [Wise Wednesdays]

Have you ever had a colleague who seems to be involved in everything and know everyone? Perhaps they’re described as ‘ambitious’ or ‘determined’?...


More importantly, they don’t seem to have much of a notion of boundaries and can accidentally help themselves to your resources or take credit for your work?...


You probably don’t mind their big organisational footprint but it’s the encroachment on your work and opportunities that’s annoying?...


Well, you might have been dealing with an ‘Empire Builder’. Or that’s how my friend D, an executive in tech, described the colleague who she wanted some Wise Wednesdays insights on.


Empire Builders can be appreciated by organisations because they appear to get things done in the short term. But they can be a challenge for colleagues.


They are playing a different game to the one you might be playing.


What’s the difference?


You might be playing a game based on collaboration whereas they’re playing a zero sum game of competition.


Economists and psychologists have grappled with this difference in values and how to balance cooperation and competition as captured in the field of Game Theory and experimenting with the famous Prisoner’s Dilemma.


There’s no easy answer but here are 4 different strategies with increasing level of difficulty and fulfilment to consider:


Option 1: Don’t play the game

Just carry on as you are, ‘be yourself’ and don’t worry about the Empire Builder or their impact. This requires some self-control but not too much effort. However, it leaves things to chance and doesn’t really give you, them or the system much of an opportunity to evolve.


Option 2: Beat them at their own game

All is fair in love and war, right?...Fight fire with fire and give them a taste of their own medicine. But of course, even if you win in the short term, you’re at risk of becoming someone you don’t like. Plus, I believe that you can’t beat a sociopath or narcissist at their own game because they’re always willing to go further than you. Not recommended.


Option 3: Play the long game

In the grand scheme of things, you’ll win some and lose some. Stay focused on your long term vision and absorb losses accordingly, as part of the game. This is where (transformational) leadership starts to come in: you’re able to step back from any situation, see the bigger picture and move intuitively not reactively. This benefits you but also the whole. No one can tell you exactly what step to take, it requires awareness and trust in your intuition. I’d say this is the option that would work best for most people.


Option 4: Change the game

This is the hardest in terms of the level of sacrifice required since you may not ‘succeed’ in the conventional sense. The Mandelas and Gandhis of the world sacrificed a lot and for every one of them, there were countless others who sacrificed as much but never reached that level of influence and legacy. Yet, they were all essential to creating the critical mass of fearless humans who changed the game. Perhaps you are one of them.


No matter which option you choose, here are a few practical things you can do along the way:



1) Create strategies to help meet the Empire Builder’s needs including their need for status (by recognising and rewarding their achievements and qualities) and their need for challenge (by giving them roles or projects that keep their energy and skills occupied).


2) Create strategies to meet your own needs for safety and recognition by having clear boundaries and communicating these repeatedly, making your own work and successes visible and developing support, allies and collaborators.


3) Create strategies to meet the organisational need for purpose and delivery by naming issues like lack of collaboration or poor transparency and showing how the organisation will do better by addressing said issues (of course this requires you to take on more leadership which you may not have the capacity for, and that’s OK too).


Humans behave in aggressive, extractive ways because of their own fears and insecurities. No human has ever attacked someone except out of a fearful sense of unmet need – or at least that’s the narrative with the most possibility for change.


At some stage in our human history, a few humans were so desperate that they felt it was justified to take from others to survive. Unfortunately, this behaviour became woven into our social fabric as ‘work culture’.


So, addressing the root cause by rebuilding trust and healing wounds around scarcity and mistrust is the ultimate solution. Interestingly, studies of the Prisoner’s Dilemma show that behaviours can change from selfish to collaborative over time, especially in the right environment.


I believe women and men with a tendency towards collaboration and trust-building are a big part of the long-term change we need to survive as a species. But it will take a while…


In the meantime, remember that although it can be challenging to work with Empire Builders, setting clear boundaries, communicating powerfully, providing opportunities for challenge and fostering collaboration will help.


Keep focused on the bigger picture, do your own inner-work and get support where needed and you’ll experience fulfilment no matter what.


Have a great week,


Amina

p.s. Got a hot topic or question for Wise Wednesdays? Comment or DM with your suggestion.