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.
These are just two examples of passive deceptions at work. Studying nature's tricks can help us detect many more. First in this series Next in this series Top Next Issue
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More articles on Workplace Politics:
- A Critique of Criticism: I
- Whether we call it "criticism" or "feedback," the receiver can sometimes experience
pain, even when the giver didn't intend harm. How does this happen? What can givers of feedback do to
increase the chance that the receiver hears the giver's message without experiencing pain?
- You Can't Control What Other People Think
- Ever think that the world would be a much better place if you could control what other people think?
Maybe it would be. And maybe not...
- Bottlenecks: II
- When some people take on so much work that they become "bottlenecks," they expose the organization
to risks. Managing those risks is a first step to ending the bottlenecking pattern.
- The Artful Shirker
- Most people who shirk work are fairly obvious about it, but some are so artful that the people around
them don't realize what's happening. Here are a few of the more sophisticated shirking techniques.
- Allocating Airtime: I
- The problem of people who dominate meetings is so serious that we've even devised processes intended
to more fairly allocate speaking time. What's happening here?
See also Workplace Politics and Devious Political Tactics for more related articles.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming June 7: Toxic Disrupters: Tactics
- Some people tend to disrupt meetings. Their motives vary, but they use techniques drawn from a limited collection. Examples: they violate norms, demand attention, mess with the agenda, and sow distrust. Response begins with recognizing their tactics. Available here and by RSS on June 7.
- And on June 14: Pseudo-Collaborations
- Most workplace collaborations produce results of value. But some collaborations — pseudo-collaborations — are inherently incapable of producing value, due to performance management systems, or lack of authority, or lack of access to information. Available here and by RSS on June 14.
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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.
- Wikipedia has a nice article with a list of additional resources
- Some public libraries offer collections. Here's an example from Saskatoon.
- Check my own links collection
- LinkedIn's Office Politics discussion group