Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 4, Issue 39;   September 29, 2004: Devious Political Tactics: Cutouts

Devious Political Tactics: Cutouts

by

Last updated: August 8, 2018

Cutouts are people or procedures that enable political operators to communicate in safety. Using cutouts, operators can manipulate their environments while limiting their personal risk. How can you detect cutouts? And what can you do about them?
Scott McLellan, White House Press Secretary, 2003-2006

Scott McLellan, White House Press Secretary, 2003-2006. The President's Press Secretary often acts as a cutout. If a statement creates trouble, the Secretary is the one who misspoke or who had incorrect information. This practice is not specific to Mr. McLellan's boss — all modern U.S. Presidents have employed press secretaries in this way. Official White House photo courtesy Wikipedia.

In espionage, a cutout acts as a secure means of communication. Its security usually derives from an asymmetry in its connection to the larger system. That is, while the people who communicate through the cutout know how to send messages to the cutout and how to receive messages from the cutout, the cutout probably doesn't know how to contact the communicators. A "dead drop" can be an example of a cutout. Another example: a courier who doesn't know the source of the freight carried.

Cutouts also play roles in organizational politics. Here are three examples of cutouts or their use in the workplace.

Deniable disclosure
By simply making information available in a deniable way, an operator might encourage an ambitious subordinate to pursue a project. The disclosure might be something as simple as an apparently careless exposure of a memo on a desk or screen. The subordinate receives the information, but cannot reveal its source, without seeming to be a snoop.
Ambiguous direction
Ambiguous direction creates a chance that subordinates will do what the operator wants when the operator cannot ethically direct the subordinate to do so. If ever a problem arises, the operator can assert that he or she had something else in mind, and that the subordinate initiated the ethical breach. When combined with subjective cues, such as facial expressions and knowing glances, especially when delivered in private, ambiguous directions are especially effective.
People
Typically, human cutouts deliver or leak information on behalf of their operators, but they're unwilling or unable to credibly reveal sources or other related information. This protects the operator when the information leads to undesirable consequences or to pressure to reveal more. If the ploy backfires, then the operator can assert that either the human cutout misspoke, or exceeded authority, or any of a variety of other insulating claims.

When you spot a ploy that could be a cutout, what can you do?

Cutouts enable
devious operators
to limit the risks
of organizational politics
Decide if it's acceptable
You might be content to receive the information through the cutout. This is a risky approach, but always a possibility.
Seek clarification
Ask for a direct disclosure instead, especially if you're receiving ambiguous direction. For instance, "You certainly wouldn't want us to act unethically…do you mean X or Y?"
Smoke out the operator
If you receive information that you "shouldn't" have, ask about it directly. "I've heard that Marigold might be revived. Know anything about that?" The operator now has a stark choice: to deny, to lie, to decline, or to reveal. If the information is revealed in front of witnesses, you're safe. If the operator continues to withhold, or dissembles, you might have found an accidental slip. Otherwise, take care.

Cutouts give you information that can be too hot to handle. Sometimes it's best to just ignore it — to appear to have missed the message. But don't miss this message. Go to top Top  Next issue: Patterns of Everyday Conversation  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? rbrenmhXARWRMUvVyOdHlner@ChacxgDmtwOKrxnripPCoCanyon.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:

A bristlecone pine in the Great Basin National ParkExtrasensory Deception: II
In negotiating agreements, the partners who do the drafting have an ethical obligation not to exploit the advantages of the drafting role. Some drafters don't meet that standard.
Red Ball Express troops stack "jerry cans" used to transport gasoline to front-line units during World War II.Inappropriate Levels of Regard
The regard we have for others as people is sometimes influenced by the regard we have for the work they do. Confusing the two is a dangerous error.
Nemesis by Albrecht DurerSome Hazards of Skip-Level Interviews: III
Skip-level interviews — dialogs between a subordinate and the subordinate's supervisor's supervisor — can be hazardous. Here's Part III of a little catalog of the hazards, emphasizing subordinate-initiated skip-level interviews.
The George Washington Bridge, spanning the Hudson River between Manhattan and Fort Lee, New JerseyThe End-to-End Cost of Meetings: II
Few of us realize where all the costs of meetings really are. Some of the most significant cost sources are outside the meeting room. Here's Part II of our exploration of meeting costs.
Senator Jeff Sessions grills Budget Director Sylvia Burwell on President Obama's 2015 Budget March 5, 2014That Was a Yes-or-No Question: I
In tense situations, one person might question another. As the respondent replies, the questioner interjects, "That was a yes-or-no question." The intent is to trap the respondent. How does this work, and how can the respondent escape the trap?

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Child's toys known as Chinese finger trapsComing April 1: Incompetence: Traps and Snares
Sometimes people judge as incompetent colleagues who are unprepared to carry out their responsibilities. Some of these "incompetents" are trapped or ensnared in incompetence, unable to acquire the ability to do their jobs. Available here and by RSS on April 1.
A portion of the Viet Nam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.And on April 8: Intentionally Misreporting Status: I
When we report the status of the work we do, we sometimes confront the temptation to embellish the good news or soften the bad news. How can we best deal with these obstacles to reporting status with integrity? Available here and by RSS on April 8.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenmhXARWRMUvVyOdHlner@ChacxgDmtwOKrxnripPCoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, 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

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power

Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about 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 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.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!

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.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.