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 |

Fandemonium: Passing the Generational Torch

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I can’t understate how many times people asked me the following question in the past week: “Chris, did you get tickets to the playoff game?”

For those of you who didn’t go to St. Catherine’s Church when people still went to church, the Carosa family has a certain reputation. Each Sunday – football season or not – one or more of us (usually more of us) stood in line for communion resplendent in official and unofficial Bills attire.

Those were our Sunday clothes. It became such a tradition that, on those rare occasions (usually in the summer) when our garments didn’t sport a Bills logo, people would notice.

This “worship” of the Buffalo Bills began long ago. My father, however, was too young to remember the original Buffalo Bills.

Incidentally, did you know the first version of the Buffalo Bills appeared in the All-America Continue Reading “Fandemonium: Passing the Generational Torch”

Should Yale (and Other Elite Colleges) Require Students Take a Kobayashi Maru Test?

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When it comes to “The Game,” precedent has no say. The annual Yale-Harvard ritual evokes a rivalry that transcends the ages, as well as the win-loss record of the season’s previous games. So it was in 1979 when the heavily favored undefeated Yale Bulldogs fell to the Harvard Crimson in the season’s ultimate game by the score of 22-7.

Even the final score means nothing. In 1968, when Harvard scored 16 points in the final 42 seconds to earn a tie, the Harvard Crimson headline read: “Harvard Beats Yale 29-29.”

This year, the 136th edition of The Game was much anticipated. ESPN had it moved up an hour to a noon start since the Yale Bowl has no lights. Yale, with a record of 8-1, scoring an average of 37.4 points-per-game and fighting for the Ivy League title, was the odds-on favorite to defeat Harvard, losers of four straight. Was anyone surprised, then, that the first half ended with Harvard beating the Bulldogs by a solid 15-3 margin?

The halftime show changed everything.Continue Reading “Should Yale (and Other Elite Colleges) Require Students Take a Kobayashi Maru Test?”

The Power of Losing Positively

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“Into each life some rain must fall.” Do you recall when you first heard this time-honored adage? Recording artists from Ella Fitzgerald to the Ink Spots to Queen have crooned serenades featuring this famous phrase. It was referenced in Steve Martin’s movie “My Blue Heaven.” But the true source of this inspired wisdom harks back to the early America of the nineteenth century. For it was, in 1842 – undoubtedly on a dark and dreary day – that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow sat down at his desk and penned his classic poem “The Rainy Day.”

What might have moved Longfellow to write these words? Perhaps he still mourned the loss of his first wife Mary, who died in 1831. Maybe he had become despondent over his near decade long courtship of Frances, the woman who would eventually become his second wife. What ever the source, the expression packs power. It’s the kind of power the Continue Reading “The Power of Losing Positively”

Exploring New Personal Characters

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College isn’t so much about learning as it is about discovering. Sure, we explore a particular field of study because we find it intellectually stimulating. The true exploration, however, is the journey we embark upon within our very souls. The newfound freedom that comes with the college experience and the attendant releasing of inhibitions allows us to realize – and, if we are fortunate enough, become – the character we’ve always wanted to become. And if it turns out we don’t like that character (or simply grow out of it), we can shed it immediately upon graduation. (Of course, we always retain the option to dust it off and put that cloak back on come reunion time.)

For a variety of good and not-so-good reasons, high school presents itself more as a Continue Reading “Exploring New Personal Characters”

The Annual Thanksgiving Mudbowl

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mudbowl-1434436-1598x1062Bring an old weathered football up to your nose, close your eyes, and take a good whiff. Can you smell it? Do images of sweaty muddied gruff men, caked with sweat and blood, move in slow motion within your brain? Do your muscles tighten in pleasant anticipation at the thought of the gridiron? If so, then congratulations. You are part of a dying breed, a member of a secret society that long ago closed its doors to new applicants.

Well, not exactly. Those doors  remain open today and they will forever stay open. It’s just that, in an era of prefabricated microwave cooking, no one wants to go through the Continue Reading “The Annual Thanksgiving Mudbowl”

Will Bush Use the No-Huddle?

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[This Commentary originally appeared in the February 7, 1991 issue of The Mendon-Honeoye Falls-Lima Sentinel.]

CarosaCommentaryNewLogo_259The following might have been more apparent if the Buffalo Bills would have won the Superbowl, but the concept holds nonetheless.

In the week prior to each of the three playoff games in which the Buffalo Bills participated, sports reporters from across the nation asked Head Coach Marv Levy if he intended to use his quick scoring no-huddle offense from the outset. With a poker face, Levy regularly answered, Continue Reading “Will Bush Use the No-Huddle?”

Mary Anne was Wrong! The Truth Behind Character and Destiny

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Pondering the meaning of character one evening, I stumbled upon the much quoted citation from George Eliot (whose real name was Mary Anne Evans) in her 1176484_94344918_novel_character_royalty_free_stock_xchng_300masterpiece The Mill on the Floss (1860): “Character is Destiny.” Curiosity getting the better of me, and knowing the exertion would prove effortless, I dug deeper to discover the full context of the quote. It revealed a wonderful irony. It also led to a deeper mystery.

Here’s what Mary Anne wrote:

“Character,” says Novalis, in one of his questionable aphorisms – “Character is Destiny.”

First, let’s get to the beautiful piece of irony. Ol’ Mary Anne apparently didn’t even like Continue Reading “Mary Anne was Wrong! The Truth Behind Character and Destiny”