Devious Political Tactics:
Divide and Conquer, Part II
by Rick Brenner
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.
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- 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. Top Next Issue
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More articles on Workplace Politics:
- Practice Positive Politics
- Politics is a dirty word at work, as elsewhere. We think of it as purely destructive, often distorting decisions and leading the organization in wrong directions. And sometimes, it does. Politics can be constructive, though, and you can help to make it so.
- Unwanted Hugs from Strangers
- Some of us have roles at work that expose us to unwanted hugs from people we don't know. After a while, this experience can be far worse than merely annoying. How can we deal with unwanted hugs from strangers?
- Management Debt: Part I
- Management debt, like technical debt, arises when we choose paths — usually the lowest-cost paths — that lead to recurring costs that are typically higher than alternatives. Why do we take on management debt? How can we pay it down?
- Dealing with Rapid-Fire Attacks
- When a questioner repeatedly attacks someone within seconds of their starting to reply, complaining to management about a pattern of abuse can work — if management understands abuse, and if management wants deal with it. What if management is no help?
- Impasses in Group Decision-Making: Part I
- Groups sometimes find that although they cannot agree on the issue at hand in its entirety, they can agree on some parts of it. Yet, they remain stuck, unable to reach a narrow agreement before moving on to the more thorny areas. Why does this happen?
See also Workplace Politics, Managing Your Boss and Devious Political Tactics for more related articles.
Forthcoming Issues of Point Lookout
- Coming February 17: Conversation Despots
- Some people insist that conversations reach their personally favored conclusions, no matter what others want. Here are some of their tactics. Available here and by RSS on February 17.
- And on February 24: Allocating Airtime: Part I
- The problem of people who dominate meetings is so serious that we've even devised processes intended to more fairly allocate speaking time. What's happening here? Available here and by RSS on February 24.
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