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When a person's motivation is not the one that it appears...

The 36 stratagems - 8 - Sneak through the passage of Chencang

2022 March 24 | by Arduino Mancini Stratagems to succeed

The stratagem I’m going to present to you is from the book The 36 stratagems, a Chinese masterpiece that can be of interest to anyone involved in conflict situations: in business, politics and private life.


Description of the stratagem

The stratagem consists of dissimulating the direction in which one intends to proceed, hiding one’s real intentions behind harmless or apparently ordinary behaviour.

Its literal translation is the following:

Openly repair the gallery roads, but sneak through the passage of Chencang.

The stratagem can be employed:

  • when pursuing two (or more) possible goals, we keep the option of choosing the most convenient at the proper time;
  • we have clear ideas about the direction to take and intend to surprise the opponent by dissimulating our real purpose;
  • we are uncertain about the road to take and want to gain time to clarify the scenario before determining the direction to take.


Type of stratagem according to the original classification

The stratagem is included among those employed to resist the opponent.

This type of stratagem includes tactics usually employed for defensive actions, i.e. when one wants to prevent an opponent from launching an offensive or when wanting to oppose it.

Like any well-executed defence, it can lead to prevailing, even in the short term.


Key factors in the implementation of the stratagem

There are three key variables: dissimulation, time and secrecy.

Dissimulation is crucial, as it will allow us to lead the adversary to believe that we intend to pursue an objective by clearly showing actions and intentions while concealing the real objective.

The forces will be oriented in a direction known to the opponent, inducing him to implement the tactics he deems opportune (tactics that we will have expected and will be ready to face); actually, our actions will take a different direction (kept secret until that moment), which will allow us to penetrate his defences without any obstacles.

Other key elements are time and secrecy.

In this stratagem, unlike others, it is not speed that drives the action but the appropriate moment, when the opponent has gained the perception we have triggered and our action can collect the desired results.

Since the action is not immediate and the stratagem may require a time-lapse between its design and its implementation, it is worth paying attention to the information flow, since the more time passes, the greater the chance that ‘rumours’ will spread; with the risk that, especially in defensive situations, fear of defeat may induce one or more people to join the enemy lines, becoming spies.


Historical example of application

The stratagem takes its name from an episode that took place in 206 BC, during the conflict between the state of Chu and the rebels led by Xiang You and Liu Bang.

The latter came into conflict among themselves: Xiang Yu gave himself the title of head of the aristocracy and Liu Bang, who had a less powerful army, had to take refuge in Hanzhong, burning all the bridges that would allow his opponents to reach him.

It was Han Xin, the commander-in-chief of Liu Bang’s army, who originated the stratagem.

He decided to deploy thousands of men to rebuild the destroyed bridges, with a twofold purpose: to make Xiang Yu believe that an attack would take place at a later date and to dissimulate the real direction of the attack.

After all, how could Xiang Yu expect Han Xin to employ thousands of people to rebuild bridges he had no plans to use?

So Han Xin unexpectedly attacked Chencang, taking a shortcut and defeating his opponents.

This episode shows that the belief that victory could only be achieved by making the opponent think conventionally was already widespread in ancient times, and that the habit of hiding one’s real intentions to the enemy was already widely used.


Modern examples of application

They are rather numerous: let’s look at some of them.

The stratagem is normally applied when analysing strategic business alliances.

Company A may undertake negotiations to buy company B, with the real aim of A’s shareholders to sell or ally with an organisation C which possesses complementary assets.

The negotiation, confidential for the market but transparently initiated in the perception of B, may be based on different intentions.

Here are some of them:

  • an attempt by A’s shareholders to gain information about the market’s valuation of A, to better define their business strategies;
  • diverting attention from A’s ongoing confidential negotiations with other parties, to whom A intends to make them feel that there are different options available to it, thus reducing their perceived bargaining power;
  • conceal A’s real development strategy, which is to grow by acquiring companies that possess complementary assets.

Another example of the implementation of the stratagem can be found in the career development within an organisation.

Also in this case the stratagem can take different forms:

  • The person has accepted the current position purely for the sake of gaining experience that he/she would be unlikely to acquire elsewhere. The person in question is only showing interest and involvement in his/her work because he/she is determined to take the opportunity to gain valuable experience, increase his/her market value and then migrate to more interesting companies;
  • Differently, the person is living a state of conflict in the company, which has arisen as a result of differences that are hardly repairable. Despite the difficulties, he/she shows a greater commitment than usual and acts in such a way that the perception is widespread; however, his/her efforts are concentrated on seizing the first interesting opportunity that may arise on the market.


Strategies to face the stratagem

When we are involved in a situation such as the one related to a strategic alliance/partnership we mentioned above, we should consider the chance that the other side does not have only one option; putting ourselves in their shoes, looking at the world through their eyes, checking the possibility that the scenario we are facing has not been artificially created, avoiding believing only the alternatives we like to be true are approaches that will help prevent us from falling into the trap.

When the organizational context is involved, the approach may be different, but it remains focused on understanding the variety of choices that people can make.

In the case of the professional who works for a company, even if it does not represent the best option for him/her, we are dealing with a typical error of the selection process; in fact, it happens that the interviewer verifies the candidate’s motivation but not its nature (money? Did he/she not have other opportunities? Other?): and even less attention is devoted to the personal vision.

What questions should the interviewer ask himself/herself about the candidate’s vision?

Here are some examples:

  • What is the employee’s vision of himself/herself?
  • How does he/she see him/herself in the role he/she holds or that we would like him/her to hold?
  • How does he/she see his/her future?

To fully understand the complexity of the topic, let me tell you about the case of a project manager from the industrial automation market, who was used to managing large budget orders and had accepted a role of comparable importance in a consultancy firm; the person did not feel comfortable in his new role, as managing a smaller budget gave him the uncomfortable feeling of having little weight in the company.

Finally, as far as the person in conflict with the company is concerned, it is necessary to understand whether he/she is a person the company intends to keep on board or not; in the latter case, it will be appropriate to register positively his/her commitment to the job but not to be cheated, perhaps believing that conflicts can ‘resolve themselves, without being addressed: because illusion rarely settles conflicts.

Dealing with difficult situations, managing even latent problems is hard but always convenient, because the dust under the carpet does not end up in the dustbin by itself.

Don’t you think?

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