Nearly two years ago, I wrote a post for this blog in which I commended President Obama's early efforts to build strong relationships through genuine dialogue with supporters and opponents alike. During the transition period, his outreach to political adversaries suggested he was determined to break down some of the destructive polarization that had paralyzed our political system, and I was both impressed and hopeful.

I have been regretting the naiveté of my early burst of optimism ever since. Contrary to what I had expected, the president's first term has been marked, not by a new era of post-partisan cooperation, but instead by even more caustic dysfunction than before. The president seemed to deal exclusively with congressional Democrats as major legislation was rammed through with no bipartisan support.

Now, faced with the reality that Republicans have won greater power in the mid-term elections, suddenly the president has cut a deal with Republicans over taxes and unemployment benefits, only to find he is being attacked from the left within his own party. Seems like the guy can't win.

Many business leaders feel the same way. It's easy to say businesses should build strong relationships with all their key stakeholders. But in the real world, the interests of those stakeholders often conflict. What you might wish to do to strengthen a relationship with one often would create a wider rift with another.

This doesn't mean one should quit trying. Generally, even where interests seem unalterably in conflict, there is at least a kernel of common interest as well.

When I was at Aetna, for example, we found that the financial interests of our customers – businesses who wanted health care costs to be controlled – and doctors – who wanted to be paid more for their services – were in direct conflict. But we also found that the customers wanted their employees to be healthy and productive, and doctors wanted to keep people healthy.

We used that common interest to build policies and programs where both employers and doctors felt their interests were being advanced. Neither side was ever completely happy, but both sides often found something to like.

I'm not saying President Obama could find common ground in Washington with a little more effort. But I do think most businesses can, with a little creative listening and dialogue, find constructive ways to build strong relationships with stakeholders whose interests seem diametrically opposed.

Roger Bolton
SVP, Communications, Aetna (Retd.)
Senior Counselor, RBC Strategic Consulting