Most people are familiar with some forms of camouflage as it's used in nature or by the military. The idea usually relates to disguising or cloaking a physical entity so as to make detection difficult. In nature, camouflage often takes the form of protective coloration. Military applications involve similar techniques, but there are also more sophisticated disguises.
Military theorists recognize two classes of deception. Passive deception disguises an existing capability, facility, or intention. Active deception makes a nonexistent capability, facility, or intention appear to be real.
At work, deceptions of all kinds are often a tool of politics. Applying what scientists know about deception in nature, and what military theorists know about deception in war, we can gain new insights into its use in workplace politics. Here are two examples of deceptions in workplace politics that employ passive camouflage.
- Disruptive coloration
- The black and white coloration of killer whales exemplifies what's called disruptive coloration. The color pattern contradicts the whale's body shape, which gives it an advantage. In the often-uneven light of the subsurface marine environment, other animals might not recognize the killer whale until too late.
- In preparation for downsizing, managers must select projects for termination from among projects underway or planned. In some cases, sound decisions require project status reviews that are either sudden or beyond the routine review. If these reviews occur only in preparation for downsizing, conducting them sets off rumors that could trigger an unwanted exodus of employees who believe that they're about to be terminated themselves. Making such project reviews routine prevents them from being seen as a signal of downsizing. With respect to project reviews, such a practice disrupts the boundary between normal operation and preparation for downsizing.
- In nature, Applying what scientists know about
camouflage in nature, and what military
theorists know about camouflage in
war, we can gain new insights
into its use in workplace politicsmimesis is mimicry. In the context of camouflage, the flower mantises, which mimic flowers, provide good examples. Typically, flower mantises position themselves on a plant and hold still, or slowly sway back and forth, mimicking one of the plant's flowers, until an insect lands close enough to be caught. Some flower mantises have dark spots on their bodies that act as decoys for actual insects.
- In reorganizations, there is sometimes a need to ensure orderly transitions of responsibilities from employees who will be discharged. To ensure that they won't depart before the transition of their responsibilities is complete, and to ensure that they'll cooperate willingly, these employees are sometimes assigned fictitious new responsibilities. Convinced by this mimicry that they can rely on continued employment, these employees remain in place, carrying out their new assignments while they're being debriefed about their former assignments. When the debriefing is complete, they're discharged, and the fictitious efforts that held them in place are terminated.
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More articles on Workplace Politics:
- What Insubordinate Nonsubordinates Want: III
- When you're responsible for an organizational function, and someone not reporting to you doesn't comply
with policies you rightfully established, trouble looms. What role do supervisors play?
- Beyond Our Control
- When bad things happen, despite our plans and our best efforts, we sometimes feel responsible. We failed.
We could have done more. But is that really true? Aren't some things beyond our control?
- Staying in Abilene
- A "Trip to Abilene," identified by Jerry Harvey, is a group decision to undertake an effort
that no group members believe in. Extending the concept slightly, "Staying in Abilene" happens
when groups fail even to consider changing something that everyone would agree needs changing.
- Suppressing Dissent: II
- Disagreeing with the majority in a meeting, or in some cases, merely disagreeing with the Leader, can
lead to isolation and other personal difficulties. Here is Part II of a set of tactics used by Leaders
who choose not to tolerate differences of opinion, emphasizing the meeting context.
- Quasi-Narcissistic Quasi-Subordinates
- One troublesome kind of workplace collaboration includes those that combine people of varied professions
and ranks for a specific short-term mission. Many work well, but when one of the group members displays
quasi-narcissistic behaviors, trouble looms.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
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- 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.