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What can you do to gain time when you are in difficulty?

The 36 stratagems - 33 - The empty fort strategy

2022 April 21 | 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 in pretending to be powerful, when in reality we are in a very weak condition, to reduce the pressure the opponent puts on us and avoid, or postpone to better times, a conflict that would see our immediate defeat.

Its literal translation is the following:

If the army was empty, it will be more intentional to show the appearance of emptiness, so that the opponents will be more confused in the confusion; when the enemy is strong and we are weak, using this strategy can make the situation even more unpredictable.

Basically, two different tactics can be used:

  • to show indifference or even contempt for the threat;
  • or showing weakness and unpreparedness to such an extent that the opponent is most likely to believe that the apparent weakness is a trap or may in some way result in losses for him/her.

The stratagem employs dissimulation to mislead the opponent, who is no ordinary adversary.

This is because he or she is used to considering different options before acting, also keeping in mind the risks that the situation may entail; if, on the other hand, the opponent is reluctant to think that the situation may be different from what he or she observes, or is simply used to making decisions based on the apparent, then showing weakness and lack of preparation for the conflict may prove fatal.

It is therefore essential to do one’s best to gather information about the opponent and the process of decision-making that drives his action.


Type of stratagem according to the original classification

This stratagem is among those employed when the opponent has forces far exceeding our own and any resistance would be in vain.

This type of stratagem includes tactics usually employed to gain time and avoid an inevitable defeat, given the disparity of forces: the time gained may offer an opportunity to gain strength and redefine one’s strategy.


Historical example of application

The story I am going to tell takes place at the time when Wu (141-87 BC) was emperor of the Western Han, the dynasty that ruled China from 206 BC to 220 AD, and features Li Guang, who was nicknamed the ‘flying general’ by his enemies and had always fought against the nomadic Xiongnu tribes, who constantly threatened to invade China from the north.

In one of the many border guard actions, Li Guang and his troops were chasing three enemy hunters when they met up with the Xiongnu cavalry.

The enemy numbered several thousand, while Li Guang had no more than a hundred knights with him. The opposing commander saw that the Chinese were very few and this made him think that their job was to draw them into a trap; so he decided, before acting, to occupy the top of a hill to dominate the field where the battle could take place and carefully analyse the enemies’ movements.

If we run away,” Li Guang told his soldiers, “the enemy will chase and massacre us; if we don’t run away, perhaps they will think we are playing a trick on them and won’t dare make rash moves”.

So Li Guang led the soldiers to a place about 10 kilometres from the enemy’s positions, where they made camp and removed the horses’ saddles to give the enemy the impression that they would not leave.

When the commander of the nomads sent a group of his soldiers to see if there were any signs of a trap, Li Guang went to meet them, killed the leader with an arrow and returned to the camp; he then ordered his soldiers to free their horses and lie down.

At nightfall, suspecting an ambush, the Xiongnu withdrew in haste.


Modern examples of application

The stratagem is not easy to apply since it is aimed at an opponent who does not behave rashly and is not easy to predict; a significant level of risk must therefore be considered.

Here are some areas of application.

Organisation context

In this case, the stratagem can be adopted by showing no resistance or even satisfaction with an unfavourable decision, making one believe that the new situation is desired.

Your company is on the eve of a reorganization which has, among other things, the aim of weakening your position; rumours place you in a role you do not like.

Your reactions can be different:

  • You can show clear opposition, commenting informally and at every possible opportunity that the reorganisation is not related to your performance but to the power grab by the party promoting the new set-up;
  • Or you can welcome the new assignment in a service-minded and calm manner, confiding to the coffee machine that the organisation seems not to be aware of the risks that your change of role may entail;
  • Finally, you can welcome the new position enthusiastically by emphasising on all occasions, both formal and informal, that it represents an unexpected opportunity for you and you already have clear ideas on how to manage the new role successfully.

Of the three options, the third is preferred because it gives the situation a new structure, according to which damage is perceived as an advantage.

This unexpected scenario may arise in your opponent some uncomfortable questions:

  • why does he/she welcome the reorganization as an opportunity?
  • what does he/she know that I am unaware of?
  • what if, instead of harming him, the reorganization we want to implement would strengthen him?

The third question might induce your opponent to reflect more before deciding: this would allow you to gain time and define a strategy to deal with the current attack, and perhaps also with those that may come in the future.

Another example of the empty fort stratagem in the organizational context is provided by people pretending to be very busy, flaunting their unbearable workload and constantly scrambling to hide their sloppy performance (see the cartoon strip); the stratagem works perfectly when leaders are insensitive to the organizational goals or when not seeing what’s going on it helps prevent conflict.

Military conflict

Unlike in the past, the stratagem is little used today in the military context because the contenders can employ sophisticated technology, satellite detection and interception systems; strength and weakness are easily revealed and difficult to conceal.


During a negotiation one of the two parties may be in a rather difficult or even desperate situation; managing the negotiation in such a condition would lead to fatal consequences.

Again, there are two approaches that the weaker party can take:

  • to show indifference to the threats, clearly suggesting that the outcome of the negotiation is not relevant for him/her in the future;
  • showing such vulnerability leads the opponent to believe that the weakness displayed is a trap or may in some way entail losses.

The application of one or another option depends on the circumstances and the opponent, but it must be remembered that the second option is far more complex and risky than the first.

A similar critical situation may arise in the search for a new job, especially if at the time of the search we do not have one, when appearing to be in difficulty may be decisive for the achievement of a new job; in this case, a careful analysis of the interviewer and his attitude towards job seekers will be decisive.

In fact, although organizations are generally more willing to offer a job to people who appear self-confident and secure in their role, a person’s difficulty may be interpreted as temporary and an evident weakness may lead the recruiter to offer a new opportunity to a prepared person.


Key factors in the implementation of the stratagem

There are four key variables: dissimulation, patience, the opponent, risk.

Dissimulation is fundamental since it permits to induce the opponent to be doubtful and to believe that the situation may be hiding a trap; for this reason, impeccable execution is vital for the implementer of the stratagem.

Careful evaluation of the opponent is also vital because he/she is usually not acting impulsively and his/her behaviour is not easily predictable; moreover, the stratagem could also be made vain by a rash decision of the rival, who could interpret as true precisely what is evident to him/her, i.e. an unquestionable weakness of the counterpart.

In any case, a significant level of risk must be taken into account.

To conclude, perhaps the most important factor in the application of the stratagem is patience, i.e. the ability to wait for time to reveal the real situation to be faced; in fact, no weakness can be concealed for a long time and that resists the passing of time.


Strategies to face the stratagem

A close analysis of the situation and in-depth knowledge of the opponent are two key factors in dealing with the stratagem.

It may prove very useful to ask yourself questions that help you predict your opponent’s behaviour:

  • Who is he/she? What do we know about him/her?
  • How does he/she make decisions?  How has he/she behaved in similar situations?
  • Does he/she usually act on impulse or does he/she analyse the different alternatives, taking time to decide?
  • How will he/she react when he/she sees me as a person in deep trouble? How will he/she interpret the situation?
  • How will he interpret my display of strength?

It is very important to reflect on time, which is a crucial factor; acting carefully, and taking time to decide is essential because, as mentioned above, no weakness can be concealed for long and that can resist the passing of time.

In short, the ability to maintain lucidity when under strong pressure is crucial to the success of the stratagem.


A final thought

As mentioned above, this stratagem allows to gain time and prevent an inevitable defeat: the time gained may offer the opportunity to gain strength and redefine one’s strategy; to prevail over the opponent, however, it will be imperative to use other stratagems.

Finally, it is worth remembering that the stratagem is rather risky: its reckless application, without the analysis of the possible behaviour of the opponent and its consequences, can lead to extreme consequences.

A bit like gambling one’s chances by flipping a coin.

Don’t you think?

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Gs 23 April 2023 9:16

Hello! Do you have any good version of ‘36 strategies of war”’ to recommend? I like the application examples you give in an organisation context. It’s really useful

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