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Divide and Conquer is a poor leadership strategy. Improve staff relations, productivity and delivery by understanding significance positioning.
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Divide and Conquer

Divide and Conquer

Rob was a project manager in the construction industry. He came across as a nice enough guy (to me – his coach). The problem was that he had a bit of a “divide and conquer” leadership style. He gave a clue to the way he used his position in a coaching session I was having with him. He said about the people he led, “I don’t care if they like me or not, I have a job to do.”

Rob is a case-study from my international best-selling book, Emotional Judo®: Communication Skills to Handle Difficult Conversations and Boost Emotional Intelligence. And this blog is one of a series on some of the difficult people you might encounter in your workplace.

When Rob felt things slipping from his control, he would exert more force and wield his power to get his outcomes. This was causing staff complaints, staff leaving, slippage in his delivery, and costing his firm in recruitment fees and lost productivity. HR was not happy with his conduct, and training with me was part of the solution.

Rob could be quite abusive to people who made mistakes or didn’t jump when he said to. He would then play favorites and divide his team.

Divide and conquer is one of the worst leadership styles. It uses manipulation and scare tactics to achieve results. You’re either with me and do what I say, or you are against me. While you are producing good results, I will be your friend, but if you turn in a substandard result and disappoint me, look out.

It generally gets good short-term results but as Rob was finding, eventually people leave, react passive-aggressively or do the bare minimum to not get into trouble. This makes deadlines harder to achieve. And, if staff do leave, it’s usually the more capable staff who have the most self-belief who exit. They have the courage to back themselves in the open market, and they often find themselves a more rewarding culture.

Those who remain put up and shut up, or start a queue to Human Resources. This was the reason I was coaching Rob.

I used to train a course about dealing with difficult people. It was always interesting to see who was enrolled on the program because they really had a difficult person they needed help with, and who was enrolled because they were the difficult person!

So, do you need skills to deal with difficult people or to overcome your own bad habits? Do you divide and conquer, and play favorites? Are you dealing with a boss who does?

Even though the answers to these questions seem to be at the other end of the spectrum from each other, the tools that a person like Rob needs to adopt to deal with his staff more appropriately are some of the same ones his staff might need to deal with him.

Judo means “the gentle way” in Japanese. It is a martial art that allows the energy an aggressor brings into the system to be redeployed and used against them. It allows those who may not be as physically strong as another to have leverage and unexpectedly turn the tables. The same idea is employed in Emotional Judo®.

The most important thing for managers like Rob and his staff, is to understand significance positioning. It is amazing the sudden insight people achieve about their behavior by learning this process; they suddenly realize there is another way to achieve results. Their motivation to use the Emotional Judo® tools increases as a result.

How we position ourselves in relationships (or are positioned) in relation to our primary need of significance will often dictate our behavior in difficult conversations or at times of stress. It is a usually a highly unconscious process, but once you understand how the dynamics work, it opens you up to much more personal power in relationships.

Rob needed a better way to deal with stress, so I coached him on the Inner Game of Emotional Judo®. He had to accept the industry he worked in was inflexible. As a result, he needed some ways to manage his stress without taking it out on others—his staff-members and sub-contractors.

He also needed to stop “punishing” people when they didn’t live up to his expectations. Rob was doing this by favoring some while giving the cold shoulder to others or by abusing some individuals in front of the team.

To achieve this, the most important Emotional Judo® tool that Rob used was EASE, a four-step process to take the sting out of difficult conversations.

If you have a manager like Rob, interestingly, it is also the best tool for staff to use back on a divide and conquer leader. It is the most versatile tool out of the ten Emotional Judo® skill sets.

The crucial step in this process is the first one, to empathize with the other party. It is not always an easy thing to do if someone is behaving poorly to you, especially your manager. So, there are some important aspects to understand how this might be done. But basically, this is the part that gives you the leverage. It allows you to defuse the aggression of the other, so you can establish your boundaries. This is an important process for both staff and managers to master.

I will dissect this process in more detail in a forthcoming blog, so you can deal more effectively with the Robs of this world. If you can’t wait, you can grab the book or eBook on Amazon AU at:


(Or at any other Amazon store in your country.) You don’t need a kindle you can read it on any device.

So what happened to Rob?

The more he showed respect, the more he earned it. By doing work on the Inner and Outer game of Emotional Judo®, Rob reported that he started to feel more in control, and he was meeting deadlines, despite being a “more approachable” boss. Human Resources also reported that complaints ceased.


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