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:
- When Power Attends the Meeting
- When the boss or supervisor of the chair of a regular meeting "sits in," disruption almost inevitably results, and it's usually invisible to the visitor. Here are some of the risks of sitting in on the meetings of your subordinates.
- Are You a Fender?
- Taking political risks is part of the job, especially if you want the challenges and rewards that come with increased responsibility. That's fair. But some people manage political risks by offloading them onto subordinates. Be certain that the risk burden you carry is really your own — and that you carry all of it yourself.
- Nasty Questions: Part II
- In meetings, telemeetings, and email we sometimes ask questions that aren't intended to elicit information. Rather, they're indirect attacks intended to advance the questioner's political agenda. Here's part two of a catalog of some favorite tactics.
- Ethical Influence: Part II
- When we influence others as they're making tough decisions, it's easy to enter a gray area. How can we be certain that our influence isn't manipulation? How can we influence others ethically?
- Durable Agreements
- People at work often make agreements in which they commit to cooperate — to share resources, to assist each other, or not to harm each other. Some agreements work. Some don't. What makes agreements durable?
See also Workplace Politics, Managing Your Boss and Devious Political Tactics for more related articles.
Forthcoming Issues of Point Lookout
- Coming March 4: Virtual Trips to Abilene
- One dysfunction of face-to-face meetings is the Trip to Abilene, which leads groups to make decisions no members actually support. It can afflict virtual meetings, too, even more easily. Available here and by RSS on March 4.
- And on March 11: Historical Debates at Work
- One obstacle to high performance in teams is the historical debate — arguing about who said what and when, or who agreed to what and when. Here are suggestions for ending and preventing historical debates. Available here and by RSS on March 11.
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