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When your boss divides to rule at the office!
Preeti Bose
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January 09, 2008

"But sir, our team is one of the most fragmented of all teams around. Why are we talking about team bonding and teamwork? You are asking me to assist Ranjit who has never helped anybody else ever. We have all worked in different silos so far," Megha exclaimed in sheer exasperation.

"Well Megha, I think I know what I am doing. I only have the best interest of the team in mind. I know who to assign the critical projects to and who is capable of making important presentations. So, let me worry about it. But, thank you anyway for your concern." With that, the boss turned to his laptop and resumed his work; the meeting was over.

Megha Shah came out of the boss's cabin feeling understandably upset. She kept wondering why the boss was playing favourites so openly. "He lets some people do what they want, and reprimands others for very minor slips."

If you have ever thought on these same lines, well, believe me, you are not alone. Following are some of the common reasons why some bosses choose to play divide and rule.

~ Access to the grapevine: Sometimes the boss knows what his team members are doing, but still chooses to go along with his favourites who instead of focusing on work, are only involved in finding out what others are up to. This keeps him closer to the grapevine of what is happening in the office. His stooges continue feeding him all the gossip and news about different people working with them. This keeps them feeling superior to others because they have access to the so-called secrets and stories, which they can use whenever the need arises to ask for internal favours.

~ Cover-up for an ineffective boss: There are also instances of ineffective bosses not being able to control certain aggressive team members. If one of her/his team members knows more about business than her/him, or is handling an important portfolio, s/he starts acting up. The boss knows that although this particular team member is productive, yet is rude and arrogant because of a false power notion that the boss will never go against her/his wishes. The boss also finds that maybe the only way to continue getting wok done is to turn a blind eye to the tactics of these aggressive team workers.

~ Convenient to retain the chair: By playing one person against others in the team, this smart boss very conveniently keeps his position strong. If the team is fragmented, there are very little chances of the team ganging up against her/him ever. The boss can get away with lots of things, including unfair appraisals, inappropriate behavior, and lack of any personal achievements if the team members continue to work in divided sections and refuse to unite, even for a common cause. Well, this serves the purpose of a manipulative boss perfectly fine!

Handling a boss who plays divide and rule

Rohan Verma, an assistant sales manager with a media organisation says, "How we handle people depends on the individuality of our situation, hierarchy of the people involved, and the implications it can have on our career and life. Instead of reacting on the spur of the moment, we need to think and then act with a cool mind." Sounds like really sane advice, what do you think?

Rohan has been through one such instance where his boss clearly and openly differentiated against him. Although he was more talented than his peer, the boss gave all the key presentations and assignments to his less capable team member. He relates how he could not even share his problems with his team, as the boss had taken care to carefully keep them divided against each other on several counts.

"It was so infuriating that I wanted to quit and leave behind all the bitterness. It was de-motivating to see a person less competent getting all the attention and more so when the boss praised him for virtually nonexistent skills!"

He goes on to add that while it was so much easier to just blow his top or quit, he consciously worked towards meeting all his deadlines and did a fantastic job of keeping the clients happy, who in turn praised his consistent efforts to his boss. And though he disliked it, he also tried to maintain cordial relationship with those who were his boss's favorites, just so they don't do any more damage out of spite.

Gradually, though reluctantly, his boss started to keep him in the loop for important client meetings. "I think I was most surprised when the boss invited me to join him and an important client for lunch one day. I felt redeemed," Rohan smiles, as if to convince me how patience and hard work can turn the tables for the better.

Tips for survival!

Here are a few tips to survive and hopefully shine in an environment where the boss plays the divide and rule card to keep his personal motives ands game intact!

~ Be on top of your work responsibilities and KRAs (key result areas) at all times. It's a little more difficult to completely demoralise a performer.

~ Keep your mind open and mouth shut.

~ Learn to control the temper. It might backfire in a really bad way.

~ Avoid passage idle chitchat and smoking zone/water cooler/coffee machine gossip. It might be making its way back to the boss, maybe in a distorted shape.

~ Remember, no boss treats his entire team alike. Accept that there will be differences based on competency, performance, and personal equation.

~ Make way for genuine misunderstandings and clear the confusion, if any.

~ Try keeping to your work profile. No more, no less.

~ It will be your boss's word against yours. Avoid getting into direct confrontations; they will only get ugly and may mar your performance appraisals and even career growth in the industry if your boss in well networked.

~ Do not make enemies with those who curry favour with the boss. They have been at it for far longer than you might care to know.

~ And finally, if ever you get into a situation of prejudice and blatant divide and rule situation, learn your lesson well and move on.

Preeti Bose is a Sr. Manager - Training with a US-based MNC. The views expressed here are entirely her own and not of her organisation.

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