Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Political leadership & the Prisoners' Dilemma

The prisoners' dilemma is well known and well used scenario from game theory which seeks to explain why sometimes two people, even though they could easily act in support of each other, will often end up taking an action that hurts them both.

It is based on the idea that if two suspects to a crime are both arrested, they each have the option to turn 'Queen's Evidence' or to stay quiet. If they both stay quiet, the police have enough evidence to put them away for only 6 months each. If they both give evidence - they will both get 5 years in gaol. But if one stays quiet and the other gives evidence - they will go down for 10 years and be let off respectively.

What would you do?

Often people choose to shop the other person - even though that means 5 years in gaol. The resolution of the game all hinges upon trust. If you cannot trust the other person, then your only 'sensible' course of action is give evidence and shop them. (A far longer article if this interests you can be found here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prisoner's_dilemma)

I was reminded of this dilemma as we imagine what might happen come Friday morning, the 7th May 2010 when the opinion polls are suggesting that the UK Parliament may well be 'hung'. In other words that no single political party will have an overall majority. This is extremely unusual in British politics. It would be a situation that the vast majority of the current generation of politicians will not have had to deal with before at national level. So I was wondering how they will handle it.

If this situation happens (and it may well not of course) - the pressure will be on the political leaders to trust each other. And I don't think this will be just about policies - it will be about whether the leaders involved are able to personally reach some common ground and make some lasting deals in the interest of the country (rather than their own political skins or party interests). It will be a serious test of leadership and political leadership. And it won't be easy.

The media may well wish to paint the picture of it all being about 'horse trading' various policies and whether any of their manifesto commitments are deal makers or deal breakers. I take a different view. It will be about those policies of course. But it will also be crucially about whether the people who have to forge a coalition will be able to look each other in the eye and know there is sufficient trust to make a coalition last.

While the stakes are different, leaders in organisations and partnerships have to do this all the time. Whenever a leader is leading, they will only be able to do this with the trust of those who are following. Building this trust can take months or years. It can also be lost in a few seconds.

How do you, as a leader, build and sustain trust with those whom you lead?

Moreover - how do you build trust with your enemies..?

(Next weekend could be very, very interesting...)

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