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
Is every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. Order Now!
Your comments are welcome
Would you like to see your comments posted here? Send me your comments by email
, or by Web form
About Point Lookout
Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful,
and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend
Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive
of past issues. Subscribe for free.
Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout,
as an individual or as an organization.
Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in,
anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.
More articles on Workplace Politics
- Illegal Dumping
- To solve problems, we change existing policies or processes, or we create new ones. We try to make things better and sometimes we actually succeed. More often, we create new problems — typically, for someone else.
- Responding to Threats: Part II
- When an exchange between individuals, or between an individual and a group, goes wrong, threats often are either the cause or part of the results. If we know how to deal with threats — and how to avoid and prevent them — we can help keep communications creative and constructive.
- How to Undermine Your Subordinates
- People write to me occasionally that their bosses undermine them, but I know there are bosses who want to do more undermining than they are already doing. So here are some tips for bosses aspiring to sink even lower.
- How Pet Projects Get Resources: Cleverness
- When pet projects thrive in an organization, they sometimes depend on the clever tactics of those who nurture them to secure resources despite conflict with organizational priorities. How does this happen?
- On Noticing
- What we fail to notice about any situation — and what we do notice that isn't really there — can be the difference between the outcomes we fear, the outcomes we seek, and the outcomes that exceed our dreams. How can we improve our ability to notice?
See also Workplace Politics, Managing Your Boss and Devious Political Tactics for more related articles.
I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates.
Contact Rick for details at rbrenner@ChacoCanyon.com
or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.
Get the ebook!
Past issues of Point Lookout
are available in six ebooks:
Reprinting this article
Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline?
Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info
- The Politics of Meetings for People Who Hate Politics
- There's a lot more to running an effective meeting than having the right room, the right equipment, and the right people. With meetings, the whole really is more than the sum of its parts. How the parts interact with each other and with external elements is as important as the parts themselves. And those interactions are the essence of politics for meetings. This program explores techniques for leading meetings that are based on understanding political interactions, and using that knowledge effectively to meet organizational goals. Read more about this program. Here are some upcoming dates for this program:
- Managing Virtual Meetings for Real Results
- Leading or participating in virtual meetings — teleconferences, Web conferences, video conferences, and more — is challenging. Miscommunications, misunderstandings, distractions, politics, and interpersonal conflict all thrive in the typical environment of the virtual team. We'll inventory the challenges virtual meeting leaders and participants face, and provide tools for anticipating and addressing them. The focus of this program is practical — attendees will learn concrete techniques for preventing and dealing with the problems that arise in virtual meetings. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:
- The Race to the South Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers
- On 14 December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough, but to project managers, the story is fascinating. Lessons abound. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program: