Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 3, Issue 42;   October 15, 2003:

Devious Political Tactics: The Three-Legged Race

by

The Three-Legged Race is a tactic that some managers use to avoid giving one person new authority. Some of the more cynical among us use it to sabotage projects or even careers. How can you survive a three-legged race?
Three-legged racing team

A three-legged-racing team. These races can be fun — when they're meant to be. At work, though, they can be very un-fun. Photo (cc) by SA 2.0 Virginia State Parks staff.

By assigning a task to two or more impossibly incompatible people, the political operator creates a three-legged race. Perhaps you remember the races from picnics long ago — participants pair up, and standing side-by-side, the right-hand partners tie their left legs to the right legs of the left-hand partners. The pairs then run a race, and comical spills are inevitable.

Three-legged races might be funny at picnics, but in business they're extremely dangerous, because the political operator who selects the race partners has likely arranged for failure. By exploiting a past history of conflict, leadership ambiguity, organizational tensions, or contention for the same promotion, the operator ensures project sabotage, or damage to one or both careers.

Three-legged races are especially challenging when the partners hold joint responsibility for mission success. But even if one is designated lead, there can still be significant trouble if one partner is required to accept the other and is ordered to "make it work."

Three-legged races
might be funny
at picnics, but
in business
they're dangerous
Even if you aren't now engaged in a three-legged race, look around. If others are lashed together, or have been in the past, check for patterns. Is it cultural? Does one specific player repeatedly create three-legged races? If so, your turn will come.

If you find yourself in a three-legged race, what can you do?

Show your partner this essay
Giving a name to this dynamic helps you both talk about it together. When you both see that someone else has arranged for your troubles, you can see your common interest more clearly.
Come to consensus about your situation
Whoever tied you together might be unaware of how destructive the arrangement can be, but more often, the tactic is a cynical attempt to undermine the project or to damage careers. Try to come to consensus about what's really going on.
Ask for help
If you can't work things out between you, ask for outside assistance. A professional mediator or facilitator can help both of you see things a bit differently. Avoid asking for help from the operator who lashed you together. By now, you know where that leads.
If you can't work it out, prepare contingencies
Things may be so far gone that consensus is impossible, even with the help of a professional. If you're unable to agree, head for the exit. Even if you have enough power in the situation to prevail, your partner usually has enough strength to sabotage the effort. Getting out might be your best option.

Perhaps, as a manager, you arrange three-legged races to give warring parties a chance to "work together" to resolve their problems. Even though you mean well, find another way to help them — this method puts them and the organization at risk. Get help. Dealing with interpersonal difficulties directly actually does work. Go to top Top  Next issue: Plopping  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

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