Every few weeks, I lead a culture orientation for new employees. In addition to providing an overview of our company's vision, mission and core values, I also address how we live and act on those principles within our organization. At the end, I ask the new employees to share how they feel about their first few weeks at Acceleration Partners (AP) and to tell me how our company differs from other places they have worked.

Recently, a new employee remarked that everyone at AP was surprisingly helpful. He said our team's willingness to share knowledge reflected a mentality that was quite different from what he was used to at his previous place of employment. If you knew something there, he said, you kept it to yourself "as a competitive advantage."

I found that stunning. What this employee was describing was an organization actually fighting itself from within--essentially experiencing "friendly fire." How does that happen? My view is that it all comes down to leadership.

As a leader, you are responsible for everything that happens on your watch.

"Friendly fire" is a military term used for accidentally shooting at someone who is on your own side in combat. This potentially deadly error typically occurs when a target is misidentified as hostile because of errors in communication.

The U.S. Navy's Sea, Air and Land Teams (SEALs) refer to friendly fire as "blue on blue" (because of the color of their uniforms). In their excellent book Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win, former Navy SEALs Jocko Willink and Leif Babin describe several "blue on blue" close calls when team members under their command came within seconds of inadvertently attacking other SEALs. These harrowing experiences underscored for Willink and Babin how important it is for leaders to do everything in their power to ensure that team members know who is on their side and who is the enemy--a lesson the SEALs later applied to coaching professional organizations.

Unlike on the battlefield, where smoke and fear naturally sow confusion, friendly fire in business is never an accident; it is the direct outcome of a failure of leadership. Too often, business leaders knowingly tolerate bickering and one-upmanship within their teams as well as other behaviors that can prove damaging to the organization. I firmly believe that more businesses fail from infighting than they do from competition in the market.

Of course, in business a "blue on blue" is not going to result in a court martial or a fatality. However, it is the surest sign of weak leadership, a toxic workplace and a company in trouble.

So, how can leaders avoid "blue on blue" situations within organizations?

There are several tangible steps you can take. The first is making sure that your team understands that the competition lies outside the company's walls, not within.

Leaders should never allow people to withhold critical information in an effort to retain power. Don't tolerate infighting--especially by the "brilliant jerk." And don't allow managers or employees to blame each other for failures and communication breakdowns. Instead, encourage them to focus on problem-solving and to identify, share and learn from their mistakes.

Most importantly, we as leaders must not allow ourselves or our teams to put personal or team-centered needs above the needs of the organization as a whole. If the people we guide aren't working as an aligned unit or if workers are undermining each other, that's on us. We must illustrate and exemplify an organization-first approach and construct incentives that celebrate and encourage unselfish behavior.

At AP, one way we do this is by rewarding and recognizing people who are good teammates. We even give out an annual award for working well with others, reflecting one of our core values: "Embrace relationships." We also ensure that all employees have at least one goal each quarter that connects directly either to company goals or to the goals of a direct supervisor. That way, all our work is aligned, and everyone is pulling in the same direction.

Another useful tactic is to encourage people to document and share their failures--not to shame anyone but to be sure that everyone has a chance to learn from every mistake. Ray Dalio at Bridgewater Associates, for example, famously maintains a failure log where people record their errors and associated learnings. The company's policy is that while making a mistake is okay, it's not okay to keep the lessons to yourself.If you use these tips to establish a shared culture and values, you can be sure your people will band together to reach your business goals and fight the common enemy--which should be external competitors. Without a strong culture, you are more likely to find yourself leading a band of individual fighters, each willing to backstab the other to get ahead.

At the end of the day, there is really no greater leadership failure than allowing an organization to collapse from within. Don't let this happen to your business.

Published on: Aug 13, 2018
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