A Guide to Dysfunctional Management and the Evil Workplace
April 12th, 2015 by William

It’s Not About Getting Them to Like You; It’s Getting Them to Remember How Much They Dislike Each Other

Black Sails is a dramatic adventure TV series chronicling early 18th century pirate life. It’s set in Nassau, New Providence Island and is billed as a prequel to Robert Louis Stevenson’s (1850-1894) novel Treasure Island (1883). The STARZ series, just ending its second season, takes place 20 years prior to the events in Treasure Island.

The show centers on the tales of fictional pirate Captain James Flint, who has a reputation throughout the West Indies as being the most brilliant, yet most feared of all the pirates. Other, real life pirates that are dramatized in the show include Anne Bonny, Benjamin Hornigold, Jack Rackham, Charles Vane and Ned Low. Along with the fictional Flint we’re introduced to a character named John Silver (later the infamous Long John Silver in Treasure Island) who we learn is introduced into pirate life as a simple cook aboard Flint’s ship.

At that time Nassau was a debauched paradise teeming with pirates, prostitutes, thieves and fortune seekers–metaphorically much like many modern business organizations. In addition to the daily struggles to stay away from the noose (should the British ever catch them) the plot focuses on Flint’s hunt for a Spanish treasure galleon named the Urca de Lima, which supposedly is laden with more gold than the pirates of Nassau have ever seen. This serves as another metaphor for workers who are single mindedly focused on their career path and pay.

In this series we learn that Flint’s real last name is McGraw, who in a past life was a British Naval Officer who was shamed and, after being exiled from Britain, landed in Nassau where he ultimately became a pirate. The show also focuses on the budding relationship between Flint and John Silver who would later become Flint’s quartermaster. Pirate quartermasters were elected by the ship’s crew and served as the liaison between the crew and the captain. This is important in John Silver’s case as it illustrates how he came to power, later becoming the famed Long John Silver.

In one episode, after Flint has failed to secure the golden treasure from the Urca de Lima, he loses his ship and his captaincy and Silver loses his standing with the crew. They confiscate another Spanish galleon and are scheduled to be taken back to Nassau. Not being captain was something Flint could not bear so he and Silver plot to regain the control of the ship before they get back to Nassau. While their methods of regaining control differ, in one scene we see an interesting approach to gaining leadership. While Flint is stewing over how he will pull off a coup, Silver takes a different approach to regaining the respect of the crew.

Silver’s approach is to begin spreading tall tales in the hope of creating friction amongst the crew members. Flint is critical of this approach. In their discussion on the merits of this approach, Silver explains to Flint how he’ll go about gaining the crew’s favor. He explains to Flint that, “It’s not about getting them to like you; it’s getting them to remember how much they dislike each other.” He then sets forth on a strategy of setting the crew members against each other.

Silver’s strategy for regaining domination is a classic example of the tried and true management practice of divide-and-conquer. The divide and conquer technique has been used since the beginning of recorded history. In The Art of War, General Sun Tzu writing in the 6th century BC explains, “the art of using troops is this: When ten to the enemy’s one, surround him; When five times his strength, attack him; If double his strength, divide him.”

From a management perspective divide and conquer is a strategy for gaining and maintaining power by breaking up larger concentrations of power into smaller factions that individually have less power. It’s used by insecure managers whose own insecurity makes him/her need to intentionally create disharmony so as to stay in power. Divide and conquer creates an atmosphere where subordinates will be hesitant to come together as a unified team and thus won’t be a threat to the manager’s rule.

There are many techniques at a manager’s disposal to practice divide and conquer, including the three-legged race, delegating for conflict, delaying decisions, micromanagement, delegating authority to create conflict–the list goes on

While I’m not going to go into detail on all of these methods, there is one very popular approach used by many managers for dividing a group of people. It’s called spreading disinformation. It’s simply a way to keep trouble alive by telling lies to one or all parties. These lies–either of omission or commission–can create the impression that one party threatens the other. This is exactly the approach that Silver takes and in the end it works perfectly–eventually redeeming himself with the crew. Since the crew members can’t trust each other they swear their allegiance to Silver and ultimately vote him into Flint’s quartermaster position.

As you can probably gather, leadership on a pirate ship was tenuous at best so it’s the internal crises created through divide and conquer in which keeping the crew focused on themselves, versus the captain, proves most important. This is not just a pirate phenomenon–it’s a universal approach to modern-day management for those who are not really leaders. The key to the universal success of this approach is that managers perform best when there’s some kind of crisis. Whether we’re talking about the crew of a pirate ship, or workers in a typical workplace organization, keeping the underlings in crisis mode and thus in conflict with each other has worked for many a manager since the beginning of organized business.

I tell you all of this not because I’m advocating it as the best way to manage people or to get to the top–however, I’ll admit it does work. I explain this because at some point in your career you’ll be put in a predicament by an insecure boss who will use divide and conquer to maintain control over you and your colleagues. He or she will constantly try to remind you how much you should dislike, mistrust, or be leery of your co-workers. Half the battle of surviving in this type environment is by honing your ability to be able to identify the patterns of boss behavior so you can recognize what’s happening as it unfolds.

So take a look at your own work situation. Does your boss often tell you that he/she isn’t there to win a popularity contest? If so, rest assured that he/she is truly not interested in getting you to like him however; he’s probably very interested in getting you to remember how much you dislike your co-workers.

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