Dealing with Devious Political Tactics
While Preserving Your Integrity

Although some regard politics as a nasty game, it's mostly helpful. Still, there are some ruthless individuals who abuse the rest of us by employing devious, unethical tactics to get what they want — or just for the thrill of it. Understanding these ploys is the first step in defending yourself.

For many, politics is nasty business. Some regard it as a game — one they decline to "play." Out here in Reality, though, we know that politics is inescapable, and that not all politics is nasty. Actually, politics is mostly helpful. The problem is in the definition.

Dealing with Devious Political Tactics While Preserving Your Integrity

A crocodile. Crocodiles don't think of themselves as doing evil, and they actually aren't. Like crocodiles, exceedingly ruthless people also don't think of themselves as doing evil, but, unlike crocodiles, they actually are malevolent.

We define politics as what happens when we contend with each other for control or dominance, or when we solve problems together. That covers much of what happens in the knowledge-oriented workplace, including product development, problem solving, project management, and management. But many find politics repulsive, because some do use nasty, vicious, unethical tactics. Those few rely on the naïve belief of others that nobody would ever be nasty, vicious, or unethical.

In this program, we expose some of those unethical tactics. Our goal is to make politics more constructive by making the destructive tactics easier to recognize and therefore less effective when used by those very few ruthless people.

Here's an example:

Jennifer's supervisor, Darth, knows that Jennifer wants to lead an upcoming project. He also knows that he and the project sponsor, Sandy, have already chosen someone else for the position without posting the opportunity publicly, which is contrary to company policy. To conceal their subterfuge, they won't be announcing their decision until next month.

Meanwhile, Jennifer has asked Darth to help her get the assignment, but Darth doesn't want to tell her the bad news. Since he also doesn't want to disappoint her, he wants her to believe that he's trying to help her. So before their next weekly one-on-one meeting in Darth's office, Darth composes an email message to Sandy that recommends Jennifer for the position, but he doesn't send the message. He prints it, and leaves the hardcopy on his desk, with a few revisions marked, as if he's working on the wording.

He arranges to be late for his meeting with Jennifer, and calls her mobile phone just before the meeting. He tells her that he thinks he'll arrive on time, but he might be a bit late, and if he is, she should wait for him in his office. He's relying on her curiosity — he expects her to read the fake draft message on his desk. When he arrives, he hastily gathers the papers on his desk and tucks them into a folder. Maybe she reads it, maybe not. If she does, his ploy works.

This is an example of what I call a "cutout of the inanimate kind." It's a way of transferring false information to someone deniably.

There are dozens of these devious ploys, and in this program, we examine many of them. Our purpose is to expose program attendees to the range of devious tactics, so that when they encounter similar behavior, they won't be as easily manipulated as Darth thought Jennifer was.

In the seminar formats of this program, participants are encouraged to ask about tactics they might have witnessed or heard about in their workplaces. We then offer analyses of what might have been happening, including many possibilities — benign, constructive, and devious. In this way, participants learn how to develop interpretations of all kinds, not just the devious ones.

Applications of this knowledge are more varied than one might first expect. Beyond the obvious uses for defending oneself when personally targeted, applications include:

  • Recognizing devious political operators, to note for future reference
  • Supporting and advising colleagues
  • As a team lead, knowing when to intervene when team members are targeted
  • In project risk management, when devising mitigations for political risks

Political skills of all kinds are important assets for anyone. Recognizing devious tactics is one of those skills.

Learning objectives

After some preliminaries introducing the concept of workplace politics, and some necessary terminology, we explore specific devious tactics. The preliminaries:

  • Workplace politics is not a game. Understand how politics and games are different.
  • Increased awareness of politics and its role in day-to-day interactions
  • The differences and similarities between constructive and destructive politics
  • A framework for ethical behavior at work

Specific devious tactics each have motivations and risks for the actor who executes them. Understanding these factors, and assessing the skill of the actor, are important aids to recognition. We discuss an assortment of devious political tactics, among them:

  • Credit appropriation
  • The false opportunity
  • The three-legged race
  • Cutouts
  • Divide and conquer
  • Deniable intimidation
  • Pass the ammunition
  • Presuppositions
  • Threats
  • Hit and run
  • The proxy target
  • Confidential disinformation
  • The favored subordinate
  • The Dunning-Kruger defense
  • Improvised explosive devices
  • Exploiting the zebra effect
  • Pumping
  • Fake apologies
  • Suppressing dissent
  • Pushing the "stupid" button
  • The perils of novel argument
  • Hazards of skip-level interviews
  • Active and passive deceptions

Program structure and content

This program provides participants with tools that can be invaluable in political contexts. In showing participants how unethical actors operate, we describe some tactics that are widely known, and many that are not so widely known. Since they can also be abused, or used unethically, we do briefly discuss ethical questions at the outset.

Because the behaviors we call "devious" vary from place to place, we strongly encourage participants to ask about tactics they might have witnessed. To encourage these questions we create a "safe container" that enables participants to ask questions anonyoumsly if they wish. We also include in this program a series of small-group exercises designed to give participants a greater appreciation for the breadth of possible interpretations of political actions. These two elements of the program design make it much more interactive than typical presentations participants might have experienced.

Participants receive a copy of the Rick Brenner's slide set, which contains numerous links to further related information.

Learning model

When we learn most new skills, we intend to apply them in situations with low emotional content. But knowledge about how people work together is most needed in highly charged situations. That's why we use a learning model that goes beyond presentation and discussion — it includes in the mix simulation, role-play, metaphorical problems, and group processing. This gives participants the resources they need to make new, more constructive choices even in tense situations. And it's a lot more fun for everybody.

Target audience

Innovators and problem solvers at all levels, including managers of global operations, sponsors of global projects, managers, business analysts, team leads, project managers, and team members.

Program duration

Available formats range from 50 minutes to one full day. The longer formats allow for more coverage or more material, more experiential content and deeper understanding of issues specific to audience experience.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at X, or share a tweet Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
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!
More articles about person-to-person communication!
What People Say About Rick's Programs
  • "Rick is a dynamic presenter who thinks on his feet to keep the material relevant to the group."
    — Tina L. Lawson, Technical Project Manager, BankOne (now J.P. Morgan Chase)
  • "Rick truly has his finger on the pulse of teams and their communication."
    — Mark Middleton, Team Lead, SERS
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.
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!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented OrganizationsAre your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around.