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July 20, 2005 Volume 5, Issue 29
 
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Devious Political Tactics:
Divide and Conquer, Part II

by

While most leaders try to achieve organizational unity, some do use divisive tactics to maintain control, or to elevate performance by fostering competition. Here's Part II of a series exploring the risks of these tactics.

As a strategy for dominating a situation, divide-and-conquer has a storied history. In The Art of War, Sun Tzu writes:

…the art of using troops is this: When ten to the enemy's one, surround him; When five times his strength, attack him; If double his strength, divide him…

The application of this strategy in the workplace is widespread. Here are some of the forms divide-and-conquer takes at work. See "Devious Political Tactics: Divide and Conquer, Part I," Point Lookout for July 6, 2005, for more.

The three-legged race
Some supervisors assign responsibility jointly to two people who are already at odds. This tactic can be a simple error, or even a misguided attempt to "give them a chance to work things out," but often its purpose is to keep the warriors in conflict, to protect the supervisor. See "Devious Political Tactics: The Three-Legged Race," Point Lookout for October 15, 2003, for more.
If you really want harmony, work on the difficulty directly, possibly with professional guidance. Worries about your own position are better addressed by working on your own performance. Foster unity, rather than divisiveness, in your team.
Delaying the decision
When subordinates contend for the same promotion or for some other desirable assignment, some supervisors delay their decisions, on the theory that competition creates superior performance.
Although performance might improve before the decision, this tactic can damage relationships permanently. And that could depress performance permanently after the decision — for the winner, for the loser, and for the entire group.
Lying
Divide-and-conquer
is most appealing
to those who
feel weak
One approach to dividing an alliance, or to keeping trouble alive, is to tell lies to one or both parties. Lies — either of omission or commission — can create the impression that one party threatens the other. See "Some Truths About Lies: Part I," Point Lookout for August 4, 2004, for more about lies.
Disinformation of any kind is very risky, and it's especially risky to its source. After the immediate "benefit" fades, the disinformation can remain, limiting your future options.
Delegating for conflict
Delegating authority generally enhances effectiveness, but some managers delegate to create conflict by delegating different responsibilities to two people, in such a way that they must cooperate to succeed. Since neither one is fully responsible, the delegator is free to play one against the other.
This tactic damages relationships and depresses organizational performance. Costs are high and repairs difficult, because they involve both reorganization and replacing people.
Maintaining differences
When managers have promised to retain employees in mergers or acquisitions, keeping organizational elements intact can be a divide-and-conquer tactic. Managers can then systematically discriminate in allocating resources and opportunities. A typical goal might be to drive up voluntary turnover in acquired units.
Indirect subversion of the promise to retain employees is still subversion. This tactic is unethical, and therefore risky. If the promise to retain was sincere, subverting it could subvert a key strategy of the combination.

Divide-and-conquer might be effective on the battlefield, or when subjugating whole populations. In the workplace, though, it is ethically questionable. Managers who use it risk conquering only themselves. Go to top Top  Next issue: Hurtful Clichés: Part II  Next Issue
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Order from AmazonThe Art of War is an early, comprehensive study of Chinese military strategy, tactics, and history. Sun Tzu is believed to have lived about 2,400 years ago. Numerous editions, with various annotations, are available. Order from Amazon.com

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs 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!

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See also Workplace Politics, Managing Your Boss and Devious Political Tactics for more related articles.

Forthcoming Issues of Point Lookout

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When, in the presence of others, someone asks you "a simple yes or no" question, beware. Chances are that you're confronting a trap. Here's Part II of a set of suggestions for dealing with the yes-or-no trap. Available here and by RSS on September 2.
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When members of teams or groups hold back their efforts toward achieving group goals, schedule and budget problems can arise, along with frustration and destructive intra-group conflict. What causes this behavior? Available here and by RSS on September 9.

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