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.
Would rather pretend to be confused than to act, never pretend to be clever and act rashly. Be calm and hide your intentions, just like the thunder is charging and waiting to rage in the winter.
Stratagem by which well-experienced and seasoned people deceive their opponent by appearing incompetent and/or stupid; when they are not clear on how to deal with a particular situation, they prefer to stand still and feign ineptitude rather than appear prepared when they are not, acting rashly. In essence, holding a cautious attitude is more productive than taking an oversized one.
By appearing harmless, and keeping a low profile, you can limit your opponent’s will to unfold all his resources, prevent an adverse event, overcome a critical situation, and have time to prepare the ground to attack. Hiding your plans and then acting at the proper time, as clouds and thunder do by storing up their strength, before unleashing the storm.
People who apply the stratagem remain calm and vigilant, ready to seize the opportunity because acting recklessly would reveal their plans and alert the opponent; the latter will be prompted to underestimate the risk and feel safe, letting down his guard: that will be the time to take action.
To accomplish this, it is imperative that people pretending to be stupid do not get discouraged by initial difficulties but persist in strengthening their position over time; for when the right route has been taken and a good plan worked out, the goal will be achieved.
The stratagem can be employed keeping quite different behaviours, all oriented to induce the opponent not to feel threatened and lower his guard. Here are some examples:
Secrecy is a crucial factor in the stratagem, which can also be employed with people who are close to you and who share your interests; for example, under certain circumstances, to carry out a given plan, the leader may decide to mislead his/her people to limit the risks of uncontrolled rumours.
In The Art of War, in the chapter on the nine terrains, Sun Tzu states that “The commander must be skilful in deceiving the ears and eyes of officers and soldiers, to keep them in the dark.”
This may be the case with a surprise attack that may fail because the soldiers’ army may not agree with the commander’s decisions and the disclosure may discourage the troops; or even because there is a risk that information will circulate by spies or in an uncontrolled manner and end up alerting the enemy.
Two incredibly good reasons to show weakness and keep people in the dark.
It is among the stratagems employed when the conflict takes place between opponents determined to prevail, whose power is comparable, or the existing balance of power is not clear.
During the Three Kingdoms period (220-280 BCE), before his death, Emperor Cao Ruì appointed General Cao Shuan and Sima Yi, a trusted army commander and politician, as regents to Cao Fang, his adopted son and young crown prince. But Cao Shuan was not enough with the regency; he wanted to take full powers and, after Cao Ruì’s death, proposed dethroning the child emperor and appointing Sima Yi as prime minister.
Cao Shuan hoped that once appointed as prime minister Sima Yi would have given up the command of the army, which had brought him great prestige; Cao Shuan would then be able to appoint one of his people to head the army, taking control of it.
Sima Yi was clear about his rival’s plan and was also aware that at that time he was too weak to face Cao Shuan; so, he pretended to retire because he was sick and no longer in a condition to manage a public office.
Cao Shuan learned the news with diffidence and sent the trusted Li Sheng to check on the situation; the latter described Sima Yi as a weakened old man who needed assistance in moving and eating.
During the visit he had spoken in a confused manner, poured medicine on his clothes, and looked into the distance as lost in thought; there was nothing left of the man he knew; when he learned this, Cao Shuan let his guard down and paid no more attention to Sima Yi.
In the following spring, Cao Shuang and his brothers left the imperial capital Luoyang to accompany Emperor Cao Fang to pay tribute to his ancestors at the Gaoping Tombs; Sima Yi and his sons took the opportunity to organize a coup and take command of the army.
Sima Yi entrusted his people with key positions, so he went to Empress Dowager Guo and forced her to issue an imperial order for the arrest of Cao Shuang and his brothers on charges of treason; since his family members were being held hostage in Luoyang, Cao Shuang was in a dilemma whether or not to surrender to Sima Yi.
After the latter promised him that he and his family would not be have been harmed, Cao Shuang surrendered and turned over his power to Sima Yi. But Cao Shuang’s fate was marked; after he gained power, Sima Yi broke his promise, arrested him and his family and sentenced them to death on charges of treason.
As we have seen in the section on stratagem interpretation, the applications are the most diverse and particularly widespread even in private life: here are some examples.
The fool, or the underprepared person if you prefer, is considered harmless, since his/her incompetence poses no real threat to established positions; dealing with a competent person, on the other hand, is more difficult, because he/she is not all the time predictable.
That is why the stratagem can be employed to conceal one’s value and not engender jealousy or fear, while maintaining the necessary lucidity to seize opportunities; a particularly favourable context for a woman who wants to advance in her career and who, like a fool, can be considered harmless.
A case in point is given to us by Laura, a 50-year-old professional who is now managing director in a mid-sized company active in business services; she has a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering with honours, is married, and has three sons.
Laura began her career in a company that manufactures durable goods, dealing with quality and safety; the company is led by the founding owner, who has a son whom he dreams to see one day in charge in his place.
After one year, the entrepreneur seems to notice her presence and youth, calling her more and more often to his office and showing explicit appreciation; Laura, annoyed, decides to leave. She is detained by the CFO, who has always been close to the boss: in his opinion, it is a purely goliardic attitude, because the leader has never acted on the inappropriate words. And the CFO guarantees that nothing regrettable will occur to her.
Laura decides to stay and continues to do her work with renewed commitment; she takes opportunities to gain experience, she is always ready to do what her colleagues avoid, and she also attends training courses that provide the company with “tangible” benefits. Positively impressed by her behaviour and even more by the economic return, the boss favours her; but nothing more, because he is too busy pursuing the dream of passing on the leadership to his son.
And for her colleagues she does not represent a threat; after all, she is only a woman, isn’t she?
In all this Laura marries and in eight years becomes a mother three times; the first parental leave has an ordinary duration, while in the next two she returns as soon as possible because a couple of colleagues no longer seem to be so distracted.
Fortunately, she can count on the granitic support of her family, and everything runs smoothly.
In the second part of her career Laura joins the management team, reporting directly to the business owner. The boss is over eighty but hesitates to leave the wheel; quitting is always tough, and the son does not seem to be up to it. At this point Laura decides to give impulse to her career and asks to attend an MBA; the boss accepts, because Laura means money and he probably thinks of her as a right-hand woman for his son.
Yes, because no one sees Laura as the possible CEO: distraction reigns supreme.
The eighteen months of the Master is a tough time; Laura works, studies, manages her family, forges relationships, and strengthens her network. A year after finishing, encouraged by a couple of job interviews, she decides to face the entrepreneur and apply for the CEO position when he will retire.
The response is elusive, and Laura realizes that her time in the company is over; she then decides to consider the opportunities that the market provides.
After only three months she takes over as CEO of the company she currently works for.
I forgot: to this day the entrepreneur has not yet turned over the company’s leadership to his son…
Have they ever tried to smuggle you into an annoying activity that could not be more annoying? Yes, one of those things that is not yours and that you risk, if you do it right once, being stuck with forever. Let’s look at a few examples: ordering stationery, helping people whose computers crash too often, convincing your colleague that you are not a walking Excel tutorial, and so on.
How can you avoid being set up by people who are eager to take advantage of your cooperation and/or knowledge to pause their brains?
One strategy that seems to work is to show yourself as incapable. Yes, you got it right: pretending to be stupid can prove successful. The result may be that, as is the case in the cartoon strip, instead of asking for help you end up going it alone.
Wise decision, for you and for your colleagues.
Many bosses suffer from the competence of staff members, especially when it prevents them from standing out for competence; showing all your worth, for example, may make the boss fear that you intend to compete with him and even plot to take his/her place.
What to do then when the boss asks for advice? It is not always wise to immediately provide the best solution, because his ego may suffer. Much better, and less risky, to play stupid and provide at least two solutions: for when he/she has rejected one and perhaps improved on the one he/she has chosen, he/she will be more motivated and better inclined toward you.
Sometimes the stratagem can help the leader achieve better results in managing the team. It may be the case, for example, when one or more staff members bring to his/her attention a situation they are struggling to provide a solution to; a situation that may not be new to him/her and that he/she may have successfully dealt with in the past.
What alternatives the boss has in this case? Immediately provide the solution or help the staff members identify it themselves?
The first option produces some results, not always fruitful: it saves time, reinforces the staff members’ esteem for the boss, and teaches them that when they cannot cope all they have to do is knock on his/her door.
The second option involves the boss helping staff members to analyze the specific situation by asking questions, stimulating reflection, and guiding people toward a solution that they will feel their own, thus increasing self-esteem and self-confidence; not forgetting that the final solution may be better than the one the boss would have autonomously suggested at first.
Listening more, even keeping quiet, usually leads to good results, because people who appear harmless are most likely to receive confidences. Feigning foolishness during negotiation can be a winning strategy because it generates several advantages. Here are some of the options that you can adopt:
“Then we’ll see” is an example of the stratagem’s application to sales management, pretending to be stupid to bring home revenue and shift the responsibility of making it profitable onto others; let’s take an example.
An industrial automation company engages in a negotiation for the supply of a food storage facility, in which price is a crucial variable; the most important one. The Client has backed the vendor into a corner and is beating him to get a bargain price; at that price, unfortunately, the margin for the company is negative.
What to do? The salesperson goes home, talks it over with the sales manager, and both decide to accept the Customer’s terms by dumping the ball in the hands of the purchasing people, who will be responsible for making the supply profitable by taking vendors by the neck.
After all, bringing home revenue is not everyday stuff. The margin? Then we will see!
Deng Xiaoping (1904-1997), the successor to Mao Tse Tung, formulated China’s foreign policy guidelines for the next 50 years. They state ” Taoguang yang hui“, meaning “For the time being, keep a low profile and quietly develop our strengths“; a strategy aligned with Deng’s maxim that it is appropriate to “keep a low profile and wait for the right moment while achieving something“, and which guided China’s foreign policy from about 1978 to 2008.
By following this strategy, China was able to quietly develop its economy and take even physical control of vast areas of the planet, Southeast Asia and Africa foremost of all; the debate on whether China’s increasing international assertiveness, territorial claims in the South China Sea and East China Sea constitutes an abandonment of Deng’s foreign policy guidelines or its extension is alive.
It is likely that the strategy was not abandoned, and that the intention of Mao’s successor was for China to keep a low profile until it was strong enough to assert itself in the global sphere.
Another interesting application of the stratagem is provided by politicians who, when confronted with evidence of errors or accusations of breaking the law, simply pretend to be deaf and dumb by remaining in place; this is because the justice system’s timeframe is usually long, and voters tend to forget.
In war, it is preferable to show yourself as foolish while being strong and confused while being cunning; in essence, when you are not in a position to engage in battle, you should keep calm and feign disorientation, avoiding acting by revealing plans that could be exploited: as happened in the story I tell you below.
In 1805, Napoleon moved with the army against the third anti-French coalition (Britain, Austrian Empire, Russian Empire, Kingdom of Naples, Kingdom of Sicily, and Sweden); on the wave of success in numerous battles, he led the army in pursuit of the Russians as far as Olmütz.
Here Tsar Alexander thought the time had come to engage in the deciding battle with the French, as reinforcements were now close and he could count on troops to rival the enemy.
On the other hand, General Kutuzov, head of the army and a skilled strategist, believed that the Russians still were at risk of being defeated; he suggested avoiding battle, continuing to retreat, prolonging the war, and waiting for the Prussian army to decide to go to war against France.
Napoleon perceived the divergence of positions within the Russian military command; if Kutuzov succeeded in convincing the Tsar to the stall he might have been forced to prolong the war, with the risk of Prussia joining the Third Coalition.
Thus, Napoleon gave the troops orders to cease pursuit, demanded an armistice, and immediately sent a delegation to negotiate with the Russians. As a consummate actor, Napoleon played the part of the weak and cowardly man, particularly fearful of the battle; Tsar Alexander became convinced that never would an arrogant man like him ask for peace unless his back was against the wall, and therefore the moment was favourable to give battle and destroy the French army.
Thus, based on this misjudgement, Alexander rejected Kutuzov’s advice, turned back the army, and engaged in the decisive battle with the French at Austerlitz: the Russians slipped into Napoleon’s trap and were defeated.
Countless people have saved their lives in war by feigning death; after a bombing or firefight, escaping capture or summary execution.
Sometimes playing dumb with children can be convenient, such as when we decide to ignore inappropriate behaviours, even if evident, because punishment could be costly, even emotionally, or even make the situation worse. The same can happen with friends, colleagues or people we live in contact with every day. This does not mean systematically glossing over; rather, it means avoiding exacerbating tempers by discussing situations that may not happen again.
Similar behaviour can be found in the life of a couple when one of the two partners understands that the other is having an affair; in this case, pretending to be stupid has the sense of waiting for the parallel relationship to exhaust itself and for everything to magically go back to normal.
Also in the context of a couple’s life, it may happen that one of the two people, nearly always the woman, suffers violence and decides not to report it in the hope, unfortunately often in vain, that the man will change and everything will pass; with the result that this rarely happens and the woman manages to get out of it only by reporting the partner.
A lucrative application of the stratagem is pretending to be handicapped to obtain a pension or other form of social benefit; blind people who regularly and independently go shopping at the supermarket, or people who should be able to move only by a wheelchair who regularly play soccer are from time to time discovered by checks that are not so frequent, unfortunately. Not to mention people who occasionally pretend to be sick to stay home from work.
The ability to dissimulate and keep a low profile over time represents a key factor, perhaps the most important; for few things are more complicated than pretending to be stupid or incompetent when you are not.
Another key element, common to many other stratagems, is timing and choosing the moment to act and turn the situation around; to get the opponent in trouble or even out of the game.
Avoiding dealing with situations, trusting that they can somehow solve themselves, is a rather common practice; a practice that in the long run can prove detrimental in several areas:
In short, seeing, hearing, and saying nothing like the three monkeys is in long run extremely dangerous.
Still in the organizational arena, while keeping a low profile can bring some advantages, in the long run it can lead to disappearing from the radar and not being considered for interesting positions; so even in this context, the stratagem should be used with great caution.
Special attention deserves persistence in pursuing the strategy identified, in the belief that it is the one best to deal with the situation. As we have seen, appearing foolish must also include consolidation of your position over time, because when the right path has been taken and a good plan has been worked out, the goal will be achieved. Here, it will be essential to combine the determination to pursue your goal with a periodic review of the plan’s adequacy as the situation evolves: for few things can prove more devastating than not changing your point of view (as Tzar Alexander teaches).
Careful observation of the opponent’s behaviour is crucial, especially if he/she shows himself/herself always innocent and extremely friendly.
The questions you may ask yourself are several. Here are some of them:
In essence, gathering information about the opponent’s history and understanding his temperament is a powerful strategy to uncover his cards.
It is not easy to pretend to be stupid or incompetent, because self-love and desire to be liked can lead the stratagem to fail.
On the contrary, as soon as we get rid of the worry about people’s judgement, we can focus all our energy on dealing with the situation; and apply the stratagem successfully.