How Divide and Conquer Works (And How To Avoid Falling Prey To It)

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While getting his MBA from Duke, a college classmate of mine was asked by a visiting speaker why my classmate thought he (the speaker) preferred hiring ex-athletes?

Now, my classmate was the perfect person to ask this question to. He’s played hockey from his youth to well into his adult years. He is the ultimate athlete, the ultimate team player, and the ultimate performer. I don’t know if the speaker knew his background prior to asking the question, but he could sure guess it once my friend offered his answer. This is how the young MBA candidate responded:

“You prefer to hire ex-athletes because of the following traits: alignment toward a common goal, teamwork, communication, trying to perform your best, etc.”

The speaker said that was all good, but it wasn’t the biggest reason he hired former athletes. As my friend later retold the story to me, the speaker continued, “No, but the biggest reason I hire them is because they know how to lose! They evaluate what went wrong, what to do to avoid repeating those mistakes, then accept it and move on. You can’t dwell on a loss. You learn from it, then regroup for the next challenge. You can’t afford not to put it behind you. To succeed, you must look forward. Plus, the motivation from the sting of the loss often pumps up determination and performance in the next event.”

Truth be told, that’s only half the story. You must not only face a loss with stoic maturity, but the same holds true for how you face victory. In other words, you should not be a sore loser and you should not be a sore winner.

Coaches teach their teams this all the time. Why? Because sport is just as much mental as it is physical. In team sports especially, psychological strategy and tactics can easily become part of the game plan. It’s used not only from the attack side, but also from the point of view of defense.

Think about it. Teams talk trash for a reason. That’s the offensive tactic. You try to rattle your opponent. You try to get him to question his last play, his overall strategy, and, ultimately, your own confidence.

But there’s a broader objective in team sports. Your psy-ops campaign not only attacks the individual, it attacks the opposing team itself. To be most effective, you employ a “death by a thousand cuts” tactic. You don’t aim to smack an out-of-the-park homerun. Instead, you target the weakest link (i.e., player) and drip, drip, drip a steady stream of base hits.

When it works, the other team begins to question the abilities and value to the team of the targeted player. Other players on that team take sides. Eventually, they start arguing with themselves.

At this point, not only did your psychological campaign bear fruit, but you know you’ll likely win the game.

This is called the “divide and conquer” strategy. It’s used in any arena involving organized groups. That could include sports, businesses, political parties, and even entire nations. It’s a quite effective strategy and, because of this, nearly all leaders, no matter what their field of battle, consider it among their arsenal of offensive weapons.

Yet, is this an ethical way to win? That’s a question many ask. But, in the spirit of the speaker at Duke, it’s not the right question to ask.

The better question to ask is “How does my team avoid falling victim to a divide and conquer strategy?”

Face it, you may have the moral standing to remain stalwart. Your honor, upbringing and discipline may prevent you from crossing that ethical line. That doesn’t mean your enemy won’t use a divide and conquer strategy against you, though.

For that reason, the moral question isn’t the one you should be concerned with. The question you need to concentrate on, learn the most you can about, and discuss with your team is the one that addresses how to defend against an opponent who uses a divide and conquer strategy.

It’s incredibly easy to know how to defend yourself. Alas, it’s extremely hard to actually do it. The temptation to take that first step on the slippery slope is too alluring.

This truth is greater if your ethics prevent you from employing a divide and conquer strategy, for those very same ethics can be used against you. They can force you into falling into the divide and conquer trap. Worse, you won’t know it until it’s too late.

It only takes one weak link in the chain of your group for divide and conquer to succeed. When expertly exploited, the divide and conquer strategy can destroy your team, your company, your nation.

Here is a stark real-life example of how this works.

During the Korean War, American POWs were held in Chinese-run prison camps. In his book Influence, The Psychology of Persuasion, (Collins Business edition, 2007), behavioral psychologist Robert Cialdini says “the major intent of the Chinese was not simply to extract information from their prisoners. It was to indoctrinate them, to change their attitudes and perceptions of themselves, of their political system, of their country’s role in the war, and of communism.”

They accomplished this not by browbeating or torturing the POWs, but by using the POWs own ethics against them. It was deviously simple. It began with getting them to admit that no one is perfect.

That’s easy, right? Do you believe that anyone is perfect? Certainly not. No human can be perfect.

And if no human can be perfect, it naturally follows that no group of humans can be perfect. That group can include your unit, your branch, and, yes, even your country.

It’s that simple. The devious Chinese got many (but not all) of the POWs to write down a simple anti-American phrase like (per Cialdini) “America is not perfect.”

Sounds harmless, right? But that’s precisely the first step on the slippery slide. Did it work? Definitely.

Dr. Henry Segal, the neuropsychologist who studied the returning POWs, concluded the Chinese achieved their purpose. He said the POWs experienced higher rates of “defection, disloyalty, changed attitudes and beliefs, poor discipline, poor morale, poor esprit, and doubts to America’s role.”

Of note, the POWs at the North Korean-run camps were treated more harshly. Their American spirit remained high.

Cialdini (in Influence, Science and Practice, Allyn and Bacon, 2001), identified six areas of influence. The one described above falls under the category “Commitment and Consistency.” There’s a lot more to it than this. But it defines both the “drip, drip, drip” tactic (regularly nagging the POWs to write very small anti-American statements) and the “divide and conquer” strategy (the end result being disloyalty, poor morale, and doubts about America.”)

The best defense against this is, in so many words, to look before you leap. Cialdini says to look to your heart and your stomach. If it doesn’t feel right in either place, don’t do it. This advice might be too subtle for most of us to put into consistent practice.

Sports coaches have a better defense. Cialdini might disagree with it, but it has this one merit: it works.

A coach will tell his team two things. First, never criticize a teammate or the team, especially in front of another team. (Marv Levy masterfully turned the “Bickering Bills” of 1989 into four straight AFC Champions by doing this.) Second, if a teammate is attacked, defend him, even if it looks like he instigated it. (Watch what happens in a hockey game when someone takes a cheap shot at a player on the other team.)

There’s one final piece of advice: always be alert to the possibility someone (or some group) is trying to create a division in your group. They’ll usually target one person, the person they think is the easiest to convince you that they have a fault.

Don’t let them convince you. Stick up for your team through thick or thin.

You may lose this game. But there’s always the next game. Without a team, there is no next game.

And, please, when you are fortunate enough to win, show some respect for the loser. Don’t gloat. Don’t act superior. Don’t spurn him like he’s a pariah. Treat your opponent like you’d treat your neighbor.

I’ve written more on this subject. If you read this Commentary on our web-site, I’ll supply links to the following articles:

How to Protect Yourself From Being Hypnotized Without Knowing It |

The Effective Use of Nonverbal Communication as Related to the Game of Chess |

The Dark Side: A Review of Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive by Robert B. Cialdini et al |

Don’t Be a Patsy! A Review of Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert B. Cialdini |

A Book Cover to Judge: A Review of Influence: Science and Practice by Robert B. Cialdini |

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