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

Last updated: August 8, 2018

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: 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? 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:

President Barack Obama with Stevie WonderWhat You See Isn't Always What You Get
We all engage in interpreting the behavior of others, usually without thinking much about it. Whenever you notice yourself having a strong reaction to someone's behavior, consider the possibility that your interpretation has outrun what you actually know.
The ruins of the Temple of Apollo at DelphiOn Advice and Responsibility
Being asked for advice can be an affirming experience, but actually giving advice can sometimes entail risk. How can this happen, and what choices do we have?
RaspberriesHuman Limitations and Meeting Agendas
Recent research has discovered a class of human limitations that constrain our ability to exert self-control and to make wise decisions. Accounting for these effects when we construct agendas can make meetings more productive and save us from ourselves.
Orient quad, photo by George H. Van NormanHow to Deal with Holding Back
When group members voluntarily restrict their contributions to group efforts, group success is threatened and high performance becomes impossible. How can we reduce the incidence of holding back?
A ravenAnticipate Counter-Communication
Effective communication enables two parties to collaborate. Counter-communication is information provided by a third party that contradicts the basis of agreements or undermines that collaboration.

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

An abandoned railwayComing August 21: Perfectionism and Avoidance
Avoiding tasks we regard as unpleasant, boring, or intimidating is a pattern known as procrastination. Perfectionism is another pattern. The interplay between the two makes intervention a bit tricky. Available here and by RSS on August 21.
A dog playing catch with a discAnd on August 28: Playing at Work
Eight hours a day — usually more — of meetings, phone calls, reading and writing email and text messages, briefing others or being briefed, is enough to drive anyone around the bend. To re-energize, to clarify one's perspective, and to restore creative capacity, play is essential. Play at work, I mean. Available here and by RSS on August 28.

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 Race to the South Pole: Lessons in Leadership
On 14The Race to the South Pole: Lessons in Leadership 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. We'll use the history of this event to explore lessons in leadership and its application to organizational efforts. A fascinating and refreshing look at leadership from the vantage point of history. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

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.