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Volume 21, Issue 47;   November 24, 2021: Three Levels of Deception at Work

Three Levels of Deception at Work


Deception in workplace politics is probably less common than many believe. Still, being ensnared in a deception can be a costly and upsetting experience. A valuable skill is recognizing the three types of deceptions: strategic, operational, and tactical.
Monarch butterfly (top) and Viceroy (bottom)

Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus) (top), and a Viceroy Butterfly (Limenitis archippus), a Monarch mimic (bottom). This form of mimicry is known as Müllerian mimicry. It arises when a single predator species preys on both of the mutually mimicking species, both of which are noxious or toxic to the predator. Evolutionary convergence arises from the predator's learning to avoid the two species.

By mimicking each other, the two species deceive their predators. This is an example of a deception that has elements of strategy, operations, and tactics. It is strategic in that the species have devised a deception that their descendants will inherit. It is operational because it will serve this generation of Monarchs and Viceroys. And it is tactical because it serves individuals on a daily basis.

Photo of Monarch by Richiebits, courtesy Wikipedia. Photo of Viceroy by PiccoloNamek, courtesy Wikipedia. Viceroy photo published under the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2.

Deception is a widely used technique of workplace politics. In general, we engage in deception when we choose actions that are intended to cause others to believe something different from what we know (or believe) to be true. Deceivers use deception to gain advantage for their part of the organization or for themselves personally. If you want to avoid being deceived yourself, mastery of the contents of the "deception toolbox" is a critical political skill.

And that mastery begins with a high-level view of the contents of the Deception Toolbox. Tools of deception are available in three rough categories. Strategic deceptions are intended to deceive others about basic objectives, intentions, strategies, or capabilities. Operational deceptions disguise a specific operation or action that's planned or whose planning is underway. Tactical deceptions deceive others about current activities.

Real life Real life is of course complicated.
Some deceptions have combinations of
strategic, operational, and tactical
components. Any combination is possible.
is of course more complicated. Some deceptions have combinations of strategic, operational and tactical components. All combinations are possible. To acquire skills needed for recognizing deceptions, understanding the three categories is essential.

Strategic deception
Although all deceptions exploit psychology to some degree, strategic deception might be the most dependent on psychological phenomena. For instance, observers have a tendency to deceive themselves if the data they receive is jarringly at odds with what they know and understand of the system they're observing. They do this by interpreting their observations so as to maintain the order of things as they know them. in some cases, they adopt observation strategies that bias the data in favor of that world view.
This process opens possibilities for deceivers. By exploiting the observers' tendency to gather and interpret data so as to conform to their preconceptions, deceivers can mask their activities to appear to be what observers expect, or to appear to have little or no significance.
For example, an employee about to initiate a search for employment elsewhere might begin working from home on a regular basis to make time off for job interviews less obvious. This is a strategy that employs the technique of conditioning by repeatedly engaging in behavior — the cover — that could be preparation for the planned action. When the deceiver finally undertakes the action, the person deceived interprets the action as the cover.
Operational deception
An operational deception is one that supports an activity that's actually underway. The objective of the operational deception is to guide the observer into interpreting available data so as to prevent detection or recognition of that activity, or to misinterpret it in ways that prevent the observer from taking actions not in the deceiver's interest.
The most sophisticated forms of operational deception are self-concealing. That is, when the operation is complete, whether or not it is successful, the observer will not have gained any confirmation that a deception was involved. This property is important in the workplace, because it enables the deceiver to use deceptions repeatedly without loss of effectiveness.
For example, Tara is a micromanager. One of her team, Rob, has been asked to deliver a series of training sessions for another department. Tara finally approves Rob's proposal for the first session, to be held in two weeks. Rob begins preparing the training materials, but only two days before the first session, Tara notifies Rob that she wants to review the materials before giving her "final approval." Tara has deceived Rob by implying that he was approved to deliver the training, without telling him that she would be reviewing the materials, and that she was withholding "final approval." She has deceived him by concealing her micromanagement until it's too late for Rob to negotiate with Tara to avoid making any changes she demands.
Tactical deception
A tactical deception is one that deceives observers about action that is underway or about what is happening in the moment. A simple example is a false denial that an event is occurring. To delay a choice from among competing proposals until the favored entry has been submitted, a deceiver might say, "I haven't rejected your proposal; it's still under consideration."
A more sophisticated example of tactical deception involves exploiting the unwritten rules against perfidy. Deceivers engage in perfidious acts because they believe that opponents will assume that they won't, and this gives them an advantage — in surprise, at least.
But perfidious behavior is difficult to conceal. Detection of patterns of perfidious behavior, or patterns of absence of ethical behavior, can expose the deceiver's intents. One means of limiting detection of patterns is migration. By migrating from one organization to another relatively rapidly, the deceiver limits the number of people who have enough information to detect patterns of perfidy.

Actions of many kinds — not only deception — can be classified according to the framework of strategy, operations, and tactics. The class of actions that protect against being deceived is one. For example, a strategy for preventing oneself from being deceived might be to study the craft of deception. What would be an example of an operation that would reduce the risk of being deceived? What would be a tactic? Go to top Top  Next issue: Surviving Incompetence: I  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

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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

The Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill BridgeComing May 29: Rescheduling: Project Factors
Rescheduling is what we do when we can no longer honor the schedule we have now. Of all causes of rescheduling, the more controllable are those found at the project level. Attending to them in one project can limit their effects on other projects. Available here and by RSS on May 29.
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When the current schedule is no longer viable, we reschedule. But rescheduling is unlike devising a schedule before work has begun. People know that we're "behind" and taking time to reschedule only makes things worse. Political pressure doesn't help. Available here and by RSS on June 5.

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