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:
- Using Indirectness at Work
- Although many of us value directness, indirectness does have its place. At times, conveying information
indirectly can be a safe way — sometimes the only safe way — to preserve or restore
well-being and comity within the organization.
- OODA at Work
- OODA is a model of decision-making that's especially useful in rapidly evolving environments, such as
combat, marketing, politics, and emergency management. Here's a brief overview.
- The End-to-End Cost of Meetings: III
- Many complain about attending meetings. Certainly meetings can be maddening affairs, and they also cost
way more than most of us appreciate. Understanding how much we spend on meetings might help us get control
of them. Here's Part III of a survey of some less-appreciated costs.
- Suspense Is Not Your Friend
- Most of us have to talk to other people at work. Whether to peers, subordinates, or superiors, sometimes
we must convey information that can be complicated when delivered in full detail. To convey complicated
ideas effectively, avoid suspense.
- Behavioral Indicators of Political Risk
- Avoiding dangerous political interactions is easier if you know what to look for. Among the indicators
of possible trouble are the behaviors of the people around you.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming July 22: Red Flags: I
- When we finally admit to ourselves that a collaborative effort is in serious trouble, we sometimes recall that we had noticed several "red flags" early enough to take action. Toxic conflict and voluntary turnover are two examples. Available here and by RSS on July 22.
- And on July 29: Red Flags: II
- When we find clear evidence of serious problems in a project or other collaboration, we sometimes realize that we had overlooked several "red flags" that had foretold trouble. In this Part II of our review of red flags, we consider communication patterns that are useful indicators of future problems. Available here and by RSS on July 29.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many people 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.
- Bullet Points: Mastery or Madness?
Decision-makers in modern organizations commonly demand briefings in the form of bullet points or a series of series of bullet points. But this form of presentation has limited value for complex decisions. We need something more. We actually need to think. Briefers who combine the bullet-point format with a variety of persuasion techniques can mislead decision-makers, guiding them into making poor decisions. Read more about this program.
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.