The Divide and Conquer Approach Doesn’t Work When Building a Positive Team Culture


Photo by Jeffrey F Lin on Unsplash

As we celebrate Remembrance Day in Canada on November 11th, it’s worth thinking about this holiday’s roots. The day was designed to remember those who have served in wars and who continue to defend Canada. But its roots go even deeper than that.


Canada’s Remembrance Day started across the Atlantic as Armistice Day in England. King George V wanted a day to pay respects to soldiers after World War I, but it was also a celebration of Britain’s collaboration with other countries to fight those who sought to oppress them in the war. A banquet honouring the French president was held at Buckingham Palace, and the tradition eventually spread to Commonwealth member states and to the United States, which celebrates November 11th as Veterans Day.


The origins of Remembrance Day are the perfect reminder that the divide and conquer approach—whether in politics, business, or society—does not produce positive results. If European nations had allowed themselves to be separated rather than uniting together in the two world wars, the planet would surely look a lot different today. Let’s examine how the divide and conquer approach works, and why replacing this approach with positive team culture is a better strategy.


Divide and Conquer Meaning: How This Approach Actually Works Against Groups


While a divide and conquer tactic might work for cleaning out a closet or organizing your kitchen, in most other situations, it typically has negative outcomes. The steps of a divide and conquer approach can follow multiple paths.


For example, a divide and conquer algorithm in problem-solving breaks down large tasks into many smaller subtasks, which are then undertaken by individuals or small groups. This seems like a fairly innocuous tack to take, but it can result in groups losing touch with each other and with their common goals.


Other divide and conquer examples are more extreme. In the workplace environment, sales management will pit employees against each other and reward the highest producers. Employees who hit certain metrics will win coveted offices, salary bumps, and promotions at the expense of coworkers who don’t “perform” as well.


In the worst-case scenarios, divide and conquer can have disastrous long-term consequences. It helps to recall that in politics, this strategy is often referred to as “divide and rule.” An entity that desires power over a region will foster smaller conflicts to drain resources, keep the populace distracted, and make it easier to take control bit by bit.


The divide and conquer method has been used since the days of ancient civilizations, and it was a key strategy employed by the Roman and British empires. This tactic works because it capitalizes on human nature and an animal instinct to “kill or be killed.” As our society has become more competitive overall, we see a greater acceptance of divide and conquer methods in everything from reality television programming to international politics.


Divide and conquer is being used right now to facilitate a new uptick in racism and fascism around the globe. By goading groups into fighting among themselves, powers are able to advance their nefarious agendas and make incremental progress towards a world that will only see more wealth disparity, poverty, depleted resources, bigotry, violence, and climate destruction.

Building a Positive Team Culture

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It’s odd, when you think about it, that the divide and conquer mentality is so embraced by our culture when its opposite is also heavily favoured. We have only to look to the world of sports to see how the importance of team culture runs counter to the divide and conquer mentality.

In the sports world, building a positive team means everyone works together to meet a common goal and maintains an optimistic outlook that this goal can be achieved. Positive team culture examples in sports include:

  • Team huddles before games and plays on the field

  • Emphasis on passing the ball or puck to teammates

  • Awarding “most valuable player” to someone who helped the team win (not necessarily the high scorer or most gifted athlete)

  • Travelling, training, and living together to encourage a feeling of family and having a united front

  • Team colours and merchandise for fans to support their athletes and join in the team mentality


It would be impossible for the winners of the Stanley Cup or the Olympic gold medalists in curling, for instance, to achieve their victories without working together as a team.


Building a positive team culture isn’t just limited to the sports domain, however. In the last few decades, building team culture activities has become popular in the business world too. Team culture in the workplace uses similar tactics as we see in sports to replace outmoded divide and conquer methods with new strategies that have dual benefits. First, building a positive and inclusive team culture helps businesses reach their goals faster and stronger. Second, it makes the process more inclusive and pleasant for all involved because everyone’s input is valued.


Positive Workplace Culture


It’s often easier to define positive workplace culture by looking first at negative work culture examples to see what it is not. In addition to the cut-throat competitive scenarios mentioned above, some examples of bad business culture include:

  • Paying exorbitant CEO salaries or shareholder returns while employees struggle to put food on the table

  • Allowing racism, homophobia, misogyny, and other forms of prejudice to go unchecked, whether through salary gaps, lack of career advancement, harassment, or insensitive jokes and comments

  • Management intentionally creating turmoil or disharmony among employees to “keep them on their toes”

  • Permitting one person to take credit for the work of others

  • Giving some employees special treatment or not enforcing office rules equally

  • Discouraging or outright forbidding employee feedback about workplace policies and conditions


Positive culture examples in opposition to those above might look like this:

  • Greater distribution of profits among all levels of employees, from the C suite on down

  • Having a strict zero-tolerance policy for any kind of prejudicial behaviour and providing diversity training and discussions to educate workers about inclusivity

  • Management encouraging workers to collaborate and fostering good interpersonal relationships

  • Giving credit where it's due for work assignments

  • Equal enforcement of office policies without playing favourites

  • Welcoming employee thoughts about the workplace and how it could be better


Building a positive workplace culture isn’t always easy, especially if starting from a difficult foundation, but it can be done. Using team-building exercises that draw on sports philosophies helps. This can include:

  • Providing retreats and getaways to discuss workplace strategies outside the pressure of the office

  • Brainstorming sessions where everyone’s participation is welcome

  • Rotating responsibilities, such as team leadership roles or meeting facilitation

  • Enjoying fun activities without regard to company hierarchy

  • Changing the corporate structure away from a pyramid model

  • Rewarding the entire team when one person succeeds, such as meeting a sales goal (everyone gets a ring when their team wins the Superbowl, right?)

  • Offering equal workplace conditions to everyone, such as an open office with no assigned desks for the entire company


If you would like to eliminate divide and conquer tactics in your corporation or nonprofit organization but don’t know where to start, Tough Convos is here to help. We can help your group start difficult conversations about diversity or toxic culture, as well as assist with reinventing your brand messaging and building productive, cohesive teams.


To learn more or to set up your first conversation, call Tough Convos at 1 (858) 876-8176 or reach out online and let us know how we can help.