Devious Political Tactics: Cutouts
by Rick Brenner
Cutouts are people or procedures that enable political operators to communicate in safety. Using cutouts, operators can manipulate their environments while limiting their personal risk. How can you detect cutouts? And what can you do about them?
In espionage, a cutout acts as a secure means of communication. Its security usually derives from an asymmetry in its connection to the larger system. That is, while the people who communicate through the cutout know how to send messages to the cutout and how to receive messages from the cutout, the cutout probably doesn't know how to contact the communicators. A "dead drop" can be an example of a cutout. Another example: a courier who doesn't know the source of the freight carried.
Cutouts also play roles in organizational politics. Here are three examples of cutouts or their use in the workplace.
- Deniable disclosure
By simply making information available in a deniable way, an operator might encourage an ambitious subordinate to pursue a project. The disclosure might be something as simple as an apparently careless exposure of a memo on a desk or screen. The subordinate receives the information, but cannot reveal its source, without seeming to be a snoop.
Scott McLellan, White House Press Secretary, 2003-2006. The President's Press Secretary often acts as a cutout. If a statement creates trouble, the Secretary is the one who misspoke or who had incorrect information. This practice is not specific to Mr. McLellan's boss — all modern U.S. Presidents have employed press secretaries in this way. Photo courtesy U.S. White House.
- Ambiguous direction
- Ambiguous direction creates a chance that subordinates will do what the operator wants when the operator cannot ethically direct the subordinate to do so. If ever a problem arises, the operator can assert that he or she had something else in mind, and that the subordinate initiated the ethical breach. When combined with subjective cues, such as facial expressions and knowing glances, especially when delivered in private, ambiguous directions are especially effective.
- Cutouts enable
to limit the risks
of organizational politics
- Typically, human cutouts deliver or leak information on behalf of their operators, but they're unwilling or unable to credibly reveal sources or other related information. This protects the operator when the information leads to undesirable consequences or to pressure to reveal more. If the ploy backfires, then the operator can assert that either the human cutout misspoke, or exceeded authority, or any of a variety of other insulating claims.
When you spot a ploy that could be a cutout, what can you do?
- Decide if it's acceptable
- You might be content to receive the information through the cutout. This is a risky approach, but always a possibility.
- Seek clarification
- Ask for a direct disclosure instead, especially if you're receiving ambiguous direction. For instance, "You certainly wouldn't want us to act unethically…do you mean X or Y?"
- Smoke out the operator
- If you receive information that you "shouldn't" have, ask about it directly. "I've heard that Marigold might be revived. Know anything about that?" The operator now has a stark choice: to deny, to lie, to decline, or to reveal. If the information is revealed in front of witnesses, you're safe. If the operator continues to withhold, or dissembles, you might have found an accidental slip. Otherwise, take care.
Cutouts give you information that can be too hot to handle. Sometimes it's best to just ignore it — to appear to have missed the message. But don't miss this message. Top Next Issue
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More articles on Workplace Politics:
- Devious Political Tactics: A Field Manual
- Some practitioners of workplace politics use an assortment of devious tactics to accomplish their ends. Since most of us operate in a fairly straightforward manner, the devious among us gain unfair advantage. Here are some of their techniques, and some suggestions for effective responses.
- Responding to Threats: Part I
- Threats are one form of communication common to many organizational cultures, especially as pressure mounts. Understanding the varieties of threats can be helpful in determining a response that fits for you.
- Managing Non-Content Risks: Part II
- When we manage risk, we usually focus on those risks most closely associated with the tasks at hand — content risks. But there are other risks, to which we pay less attention. Many of these are outside our awareness. Here's Part II of an exploration of these non-content risks, emphasizing those that relate to organizational politics.
- Preventing Spontaneous Collapse of Agreements
- Agreements between people at work are often the basis of resolving conflict or political differences. Sometimes agreements collapse spontaneously. When they do, the consequences can be costly. An understanding of the mechanisms of spontaneous collapse of agreements can help us craft more stable agreements.
- Pariah Professions: Part II
- In some organizations entire professions are regarded as pariahs — outsiders. They're expected to perform functions that the organization does need, but their relationships with others in the organization are strained at best. When pariahdom is tolerated, organizational performance suffers.
See also Workplace Politics, Managing Your Boss and Devious Political Tactics for more related articles.
Forthcoming Issues of Point Lookout
- Coming July 29: Down in the Weeds: Part II
- To be "down in the weeds," in one of its senses, is to be lost in discussion at a level of detail inappropriate to the current situation. Here's Part II of our exploration of methods for dealing with this frustrating pattern so common in group discussions. Available here and by RSS on July 29.
- And on August 5: Wacky Words of Wisdom: Part IV
- Words of wisdom are pithy sayings that can be valuable so often that we believe them absolutely. Although these sayings are often valuable, they aren't universally valid. Here's Part IV of a growing collection. Available here and by RSS on August 5.
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