Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 11, Issue 10;   March 9, 2011: Rope-A-Dope in Organizational Politics

Rope-A-Dope in Organizational Politics

by

Mohammed Ali's strategy of "rope-a-dope" has wide application. Here's an example of applying it to workplace politics at the organizational scale.
Muhammad Ali in 1967

Muhammad Ali in 1967, seven years before the George Foreman match in Kinshasa. At the time of the match, experts considered Ali's strengths to be speed and technical skill. Foreman, a gold medalist in the 1968 Olympics, was considered dominant in power and size. Moreover, since at 32 Ali was a week short of seven years older than Foreman, Ali's strengths were considered to be fading on account of age. Although Foreman was heavily favored, Ali defeated him by a knockout. It was Foreman's first defeat, and it remains his only loss by a knockout. Photo by Ira Rosenberg, a staff photographer at New York World-Telegram and Sun. It is part of a collection donated to the U.S. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs division, under the digital ID cph.3c1543.

In organizational politics, most attack strategies assume accurate predictions of the defender's response. Since unsophisticated attackers tend to leave options open for defenders, finding suitable defense strategies is relatively straightforward. But sophisticated attackers usually try to gain control of the defender's choices to reduce uncertainty about the outcome. The sophisticated attack is therefore the interesting case.

For sophisticated attacks, unexpected responses are preferable. One response that's often effective is "rope-a-dope." The term was first applied to Mohammed Ali's strategy in a boxing match with then heavyweight champion George Foreman, on October 30, 1974, in Kinshasa. After letting Foreman tire on the attack, Ali won by a knockout in the eighth round.

The strength of "rope-a-dope" is its focus on the long time scale. Foreman was thinking on the time scale of the jab or punch, or at most, several combinations. Ali was thinking on the time scale of several rounds. Ali's strategy was to withstand blows while Foreman exhausted himself, and then switch to offense.

In organizational politics, attackers tend to focus on the same time scale as their attacks. They try to control the defender's immediate response options, emphasizing especially those responses that could harm the attacker and eventually give the defender the initiative.

A rope-a-dope response to political attacks first emphasizes withstanding the attacks long enough to render the attacker incapable of effective defense. Only then does the defender go to the offense.

For example, suppose Hannibal, the attacker and more powerful, is the leader of H-Division. Hannibal seeks to acquire C-Division, headed by Clarice, the defender and less powerful. Hannibal intends to terminate Clarice, and then install policies that decrease sales of C-Division's products, some of which embarrass H-Division because of their superiority.

Defenders usually try to make the most cogent rational case for retaining the status quo. Because logic is less effective than political power, they rarely succeed. For instance, the attacker might have prepared the ground by having pre-positioned persuasive rational arguments — sometimes based on misrepresentations — outside the defender's awareness.

The rope-a-dope response to such an attack has three steps:

Enhance situational awareness
Enhance In organizational politics, attackers
tend to focus on the same
time scale as their attacks
detection of the attacker's pre-positioning of rational arguments for acquiring and eventually dismembering the defending organization. Using this knowledge, adjust C-Division's activities, and prepare — but don't deliver — counterclaims and refutations of Hannibal's claims.
Produce a superior, high-value, high-visibility product
Produce a product that's based on strong customer relationships, and which cannot be replicated outside C-Division, because it depends on the division's continued existence, intact. This ploy secures organizational longevity, even if H-Division acquires C-Division.
Seize the initiative
After the acquisition, when Hannibal's exaggerated claims are beginning to crumble, release the previously crafted refutations and counterclaims.

Rope-a-dope strategies can be risky. They require patience and nerve. But defeat is even less appealing. Go to top Top  Next issue: Personnel-Sensitive Risks: Part II  Next Issue

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. More info

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrengsDDHiufxjJbCoLEner@ChaczEjGlTYDXPtKGzgzoCanyon.comSend 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.

Related articles

More articles on Workplace Politics:

The 1991 eruption of Mount PinatuboManaging Pressure: Communications and Expectations
Pressed repeatedly for "status" reports, you might guess that they don't want status — they want progress. Things can get so nutty that responding to the status requests gets in the way of doing the job. How does this happen and what can you do about it? Here's Part I of a little catalog of tactics and strategies for dealing with pressure.
1988 Nobel Laureate Leon Lederman celebrating his eightieth birthdayPolitical Framing: Strategies
In organizational politics, one class of toxic tactics is framing — accusing a group or individual by offering interpretations of their actions to knowingly and falsely make them seem responsible for reprehensible or negligent acts. Here are some strategies framers use.
Harry Morgan and Henry Fonda in "The Ox-Bow Incident"False Consensus
Most of us believe that our own opinions are widely shared. We overestimate the breadth of consensus about controversial issues. This is the phenomenon of false consensus. It creates trouble in the workplace, but that trouble is often avoidable.
Caneel with a close friend (me)Why Others Do What They Do
If you're human, you make mistakes. A particularly expensive kind of mistake is guessing incorrectly why others do what they do. Here are some of the ways we get this wrong.
Malibu beach at sunsetFailure Foreordained
Performance Improvement Plans help supervisors guide their subordinates toward improved performance. But they can also be used to develop documentation to support termination. How can subordinates tell whether a PIP is a real opportunity to improve?

See also Workplace Politics and Conflict Management for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

kudzu enveloping a Mississippi landscapeComing April 5: Listening to Ramblers
Ramblers are people who can't get to the point. They ramble, they get lost in detail, and listeners can't follow their logic, if there is any. How can you deal with ramblers while maintaining civility and decorum? Available here and by RSS on April 5.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 2016And on April 12: How to Listen to Someone Who's Dead Wrong
Sometimes we must listen attentively to someone with whom we strongly disagree. The urge to interrupt can be overpowering. How can we maintain enough self-control to really listen? Available here and by RSS on April 12.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrensUTwwWcZFSsNHAbrner@ChacBFGrWAxKdadJchrzoCanyon.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

Public seminars

Changing How We Change: The Essence of Agility
MasteChanging How We Change: The Essence of Agilityry of the ability to adapt to unpredictable and changing circumstances is one way of understanding the success of Agile methodologies for product development. Applying the principles of Change Mastery, we can provide the analogous benefits in a larger arena. By exploring strategies and tactics for enhancing both the resilience and adaptability of projects and portfolios, we show why agile methodologies are so powerful, and how to extend them beyond product development to efforts of all kinds. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Creating High Performance Virtual Teams
Many Creating High Performance Virtual Teamspeople experience virtual teams as awkward, slow, and sometimes frustrating. Even when most team members hail from the same nation or culture, and even when they all speak the same language, geographic dispersion or the presence of employees from multiple enterprises is often enough to exclude all possibility of high performance. The problem is that we lead, manage, and support virtual teams in ways that are too much like the way we lead, manage, and support co-located teams. In this program, Rick Brenner shows you how to change your approach to leading, managing, and supporting virtual teams to achieve high performance using Simons' Four Spans model of high performance. 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 14The Race to the Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers 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 organizational leaders, business analysts, project sponsors, and project managers, the story is fascinating. Lessons abound. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
Please donate!The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
21st Century Business TravelAre your business trips long chains of stressful misadventures? Have you ever wondered if there's a better way to get from here to there relaxed and refreshed? First class travel is one alternative, but you can do almost as well (without the high costs) if you know the tricks of the masters of 21st-century e-enabled business travel…

Beware any resource that speaks of "winning" at workplace politics or "defeating" it. You can benefit or not, but there is no score-keeping, and it isn't a game.

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!
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
My free weekly email newsletter gives concrete tips and suggestions for dealing with the challenging but everyday situations we all face.
A Tip A DayA Tip a Day arrives by email, or by RSS Feed, each business day. It's 20 to 30 words at most, and gives you a new perspective on the hassles and rewards of work life. Most tips also contain links to related articles. Free!
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.