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: 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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The 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
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More articles on Workplace Politics:
- Ethical Influence: II
- When we influence others as they're making tough decisions, it's easy to enter a gray area. How can
we be certain that our influence isn't manipulation? How can we influence others ethically?
- The Advantages of Political Attack: II
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Often, they prevail, in part, because they can choose the time and venue for their attacks. They also
have the advantage of preparation. How can targets respond effectively?
- Suppressing Dissent: I
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act. Here is Part I of a set of tactics used by Leaders who choose not to tolerate dissent.
- Narcissistic Behavior at Work: VII
- Narcissistic behavior at work prevents trusting relationships from developing. It also disrupts existing
relationships, and generates toxic conflict. One class of behaviors that's especially threatening to
relationships is disregard for the feelings of others. In this part of our series we examine the effects
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- Confirmation Bias and Myside Bias
- Although we regard ourselves as rational, a well-established body of knowledge shows that rationality
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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 13: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: I
- To take the risks that learning and practicing new ways require, we all need a sense that trial-and-error approaches are safe. Organizations seeking to improve processes would do well to begin by assessing their level of psychological safety. Available here and by RSS on December 13.
- And on December 20: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: II
- When we begin using new tools or processes, we make mistakes. Practice is the cure, but practice can be scary if the grace period for early mistakes is too short. For teams adopting new methods, psychological safety is a fundamental component of success. Available here and by RSS on December 20.
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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.