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July 6, 2005 Volume 5, Issue 27
 
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Devious Political Tactics: Divide and Conquer, Part I

by

While most leaders try to achieve organizational unity, some do use divisive tactics to maintain control, or to elevate performance by fostering competition. Understanding the risks of these tactics can motivate you to find another way.

The phone rang, and Ed picked up. "Morning, Ed Philips," he said. What he heard next stunned him, because the voice came from the very top of the org chart.

"Ed, Dan Briscoe," said the voice. Briscoe was the Executive VP. "I've got a problem I think you can help me with. When can you stop by."

Ed knew it wasn't a question. "Be right there," he said. The phone clicked, so Ed hung up and took off for the top floor.

Jumping through several hoops of executive reception and assistants, Ed arrived at Briscoe's office. Briscoe greeted him and motioned him to a chair.

He began, "There's a committee reviewing and reorganizing the Web site, and they're stuck. I'd like you to join them representing Engineering, and get them unstuck."

The Roman Colosseum

The Roman Colosseum. Photo (CC-BY-SA 2.5) by David Iliff.

"I see," Ed replied. "What do you think they're stuck on?"

Briscoe shrugged. "God knows. Probably the usual bureaucratic BS. Just go in there and throw a hand grenade on the table."

Ed was a little taken aback but tried not to show it. "OK," he said.

"Great," Briscoe said. "No need to report, I'll know when things get moving. Thanks." Ed stood, smiled, thanked him, and then left, wondering what he'd gotten into now.

Ed is right to be concerned. He's been asked by a senior manger to do something that could backfire for Ed. If he complies, he risks whatever relationships he has with people on the Web review committee. If he doesn't, he could have trouble with Briscoe.

"Divide and conquer"
has a long history
in war, politics,
management, and
child rearing
This is just one of a family of political tactics that implement a strategy of "divide and conquer," which has been used for thousands of years in war and politics. Today, managers and others use it in the workplace.

In using Ed to stir up the Web committee, Briscoe is using divide-and-conquer. He hopes to create anxiety within the committee — enough to get them "unstuck." While Briscoe is relatively safe, Ed is at risk because the members of the committee might see him as a divisive influence.

But Briscoe is also using another divide-and-conquer technique I call confidential aspersions. By denigrating the committee, he hopes to make Ed feel included in a confidence. Typically, this technique is applied in private, prior to asking the subordinate for some information, or for a special favor.

Confidential aspersions are very damaging. Using the tactic sets an example of denigrating colleagues, which can contribute to formation of a toxic and conspiratorial atmosphere. And there are those who realize that if you speak unfavorably about some subordinates, then you're likely to speak unfavorably about anyone if it suits your needs.

Divide-and-conquer tactics come in many forms — so many that I have to divide this topic to conquer it. We'll look at several more varieties of divide-and-conquer in "Devious Political Tactics: Divide and Conquer, Part II," Point Lookout for July 20, 2005. Go to top Top  Next issue: Hurtful Clichés: Part I  Next Issue
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