21 Dirty Tricks at Work by Mike Phipps

21 dirty tricks at work book summary

21 Dirty Tricks at Work touches on the common experiences one faces in the office. I have worked in a few places before and I can say that politics is everywhere. Rather than avoid them, why not face it? Certain issues one faces at work are more prevalent which is worth taking note of. This book also serves as an emotional intelligence exercise to see how well you fare in such political situations. 

I have summarized the key points in this book below. Feel free to comment below whichever experience you face at work. And if the recommendations the author presented is helpful. 


Disclosure: Some of the links below are affiliate links, meaning, at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you click through to make a purchase.

1. Fall Guy/The Patsy

Assigning projects or tasks that are destined to fail to an expendable manager so that they can be blamed for the failure, and/or to re-assign favored employees away from reputation threatening failure.

Action Plan

  •  Identify stakeholders 
  •  Canvass stakeholder positions – select those who have the strongest interest in the project and share your vision for the project. Generally are they for or against the success?
  • Revisit the business case. Is it still valid and accurate?
  • Analyse progress. What success and failures have there been?
  • Identify key issues. What are the things getting in the way of progress. What are the showstoppers? 
  • Stakeholder Issues. 
  • Return to the key stakeholders with your analysis of the issues. Seek their views, agreement and support in resolving issues.
  • Reset plans. Propose alterations.
  • Communication
  • Develop fast and efficient methods in keeping your stakeholders abreast on progress.

2. Development Opportunity

Motivating someone to take on a task/ project they might reasonably refuse by pretending it is a development opportunity. 

Questions to Ask 

  • What exactly is involved
  • What is the connection between this opportunity and my development plan
  • How does this move my development forward
  • How might this be a good move for the business
  • Why have I been identified for this
  • Who else was considered for this and why were they rejected
  • What was the thinking behind me taking this on
  • Why is this a good time for me to be pursuing this opportunity
  • What will the success criteria be
  • What timescales are we working to. How will we know when it is finished.
  • What impact will this have on my current workload  and schedule
  • Which of my current priorities should I cancel to find room for this
  • What resources will be made available to me
  • How might this be relevant to my current work and career plan
  • What is in it for me and you
  • What happens if I say “thanks, but no thanks?”


3. Kiss like Judas

Declaring public support for an embattled project or individual, whilst privately plotting for change behind the scenes. 

Action Plan

  • Challenge in private, don’t expose in public.
  • When you meet with them, ensure you can find some way of helping them save face and get out of this situation positively.
  • Help them come up with a better plan and more positive long term strategy.

4. Bystander

Knowing that someone is in a problematic situation, but standing on the sidelines, doing nothing, when intervention is appropriate and would be helpful to the business

Questions to ask the Bystander

  • I couldn’t help but notice you think i am in a hole here, can you help me understand your thinking
  • What are your reservations
  • What steps should i take to bring things under control
  • What would your advice be
  • Who is really opposed to this project
  • If you could help, how would the organisation benefit

5. Creative Magpie

Exaggerating involvement in the ideas and good work of others, or blatantly stealing them and hiding the originators worthy contributions.

(i) Resist and insist  

Politely resist and insist that you take responsibility for presenting your own work. 

Let them know you are confident in your own abilities to take it further and you want to see it through. Thank them for their support interest and contribution. 

Power Questions to ask the Magpie

  • What will you do with the more difficult technical questions they will have.
  • What would be the cost to you of not being able to answer those questions.
  • What would be the cost to you of them not liking this project.
  • What makes you think I might not present this project as effectively as you.
  • Don’t get me wrong, (insert name), but what puts you in a better position than me to present this work?
  • Why is presenting my work so important to you?
  • What is behind this rule of not allowing interns to board meetings?
  • What do you say we become the first to challenge that rule?

(ii) Vaccination

If you find that your work has been stolen, you need to consider the merits of tackling it.

Firstly, find the evidence. Then check any facts carefully.

It is vital to manage your emotions. Getting angry gives them the moral high ground and provides them the perfect excuse for them to continue the game. You don’t want them to say this to you. “Calm down Sarah, this is the sort of emotional outburst that i was concerned about. Imagine you had spoken like that to the directors.”

6. Tell Me More

The tactic of delaying decisions or honest disclosure by requesting more work, research or data which often includes the efforts of others.

Power Questions to ask the Manager

  • What will it take for you to be absolutely convinced this a good project
  • What is the probability that this project will be signed off?  Can you explain your thinking?
  • What specific criteria will I need you present to you
  • How much time and resources should I direct at this project
  • What do you see as the immediate benefits/ pitfalls of this project
  • What is the possible impact on you if this project goes ahead
  • Why are you not telling me your reaction to this proposal
  • Who else should I consult with or involve at this stage
  • What cut off date should we set for the extra research
  • When will we know that it is time to pull the plug on this one
  • What is stopping you from giving a yes right now
  • What other projects are competing for airtime
  • How does this proposal compare with them
  • What should I stop doing to create room for this extra research

7. Indirectly Yours

Hiding a view or belief by using indirect, obscure and confusing communication in order to tempt or fool someone into declaring their own position first.

Power questions to ask Indirectly Yours

  • What do you really want to say
  • What are you feeling but not revealing
  • What message do you want me to take from that
  • What is really on your mind
  • I really want to know exactly what your thoughts are on this one
  • That remark could be misinterpreted, please elaborate
  • What exactly did you mean you said
  • I am not sure that I understand this correctly, can you explain what you mean another way please
  • Do u mean that …?
  • What stops you from telling me exactly what you really think?
  • Please make explicit what you really mean…
  • There is a great danger of crossed wires here. Does this mean that …?

8. Jam Tomorrow

Making vague promises of future rewards to encourage people to take on unpleasant assignments, put in more effort or take greater risks.

Power Questions to ask Before Deciding

  • You seem to be hinting at a rewards to come later… can you be more specific
  • Tell me more about the future rewards you are suggesting
  • How does this assignment prepare me for being a partner
  • Tell me more….
  • What conversations have been had about me becoming a partner
  • It is a nice scenario, but what happens to your promise if you move on
  • What personal promise or commitment will you make to me at this stage
  • Who else has been lined up for the (insert project name) assignment
  • Why have I been identified for this opportunity
  • What happens if i don’t take the (insert name) assignment
  • When do I need to make the decision

9. Guardian Angel

The tactic of implying friendly support, whilst at the same time suggesting that there are more powerful people to answer to, who will be much tougher, unless cooperation is quickly forthcoming.

Conversation to Have

– “(insert name), thanks for your concern but i am relatively unfazed with dealing (insert name). I wonder what is really behind your concern because it seems that what I am proposing doesn’t meet your needs. Lets talk through how this deal could work for you.”

“(Insert name), i am interested in making sure that all stakeholders can buy into this strategy for (project name), so I’d like to know more about your concerns and how you perceive the positions that (insert name) are likely to take.”

“I appreciate your concern and I’d like to settle this uncertainty now. Lets get (insert name) on the phone and discuss it directly with him, or perhaps we can have a frank discussion about the concerns you would have taking this to him.”

10. Email to the Gods

Using email to shame or coerce another. This is usually an email arriving from a colleague (which includes either true or false information) leveling accusations of blame, which are also copied on to bosses, directors, customers, suppliers etc.

Action Plan

– Meeting face to face (or talking on the phone) demonstrates your self confidence and personal power as well as your willingness to sort the issues out professionally.

11. Name Dropper

The tactic of coercing another by suggesting that friends in high places are supporters/ detractors and will be drafted in unless agreement is quickly forthcoming

Conversation to Have

“Is this a game where you keep dropping the names of all the senior partners in the hope of giving me a message? I want us to be more authentic than this, so how about you tell me what is really on your mind?”

“I know you don’t know the MD as well as you are suggesting, so what are you trying to say here? lets get on and have the real conversation we both need.”

12. Exposure

Coercing others by threatening to make public their professional/ personal failings or secret and sensitive information

Conversation to Have

“I’d you really think that what you are doing is right then go ahead. I am ready to take on the consequences. I believe that  you know that this is not a great way to get what you want and i would encourage you to cut the crap and chose a better way forward.”

  • Outflank them by coming clean

13. Brutal Ground/ Discount

The tactic of deliberately hiding or obscuring vital information in reports so that one critical factor goes unnoticed and another party is duped into making a bad decision or drawing the wrong conclusions. 

Conversation to Have

“You knew the information that I needed to know in order to make the right decision, so you will know that I am really disappointed that this one vital piece was buried/ omitted. In order for the best decisions to be made for the good of our customers, we need all of the relevant facts. Now how about we talk constructively about how we can avoid this in future?”

14. Malicious Feedback

Deliberately timing the delivery of this dishonest, false or critical feedback to deflect, distract or undermine another. 

(i) Indirect Malicious Feedback

  • Remain calm and objective 
  • Be curious rather than angry

Power Question to Ask

  • Can you be more specific about the feedback
  • What are the facts
  • Where does it come from
  • When did you pick up this feedback
  • Can you give me examples that led to this feedback
  • Who else is involved in producing this feedback

(ii) Direct Malicious Feedback

“I want to talk about the feedback you gave me just before the meeting. The information and timing could gave been an unhelpful distraction. So I wonder what was on your mind when you delivered it?”

15. Hurry Up

Avoiding work or responsibilities by pretending to be overstretched and overworked. 

Understand the motivations behind the Hurry Up player. You need to determine as best you can if they are employing this tactic to either make you feel bad, avoid work/ taking on responsibility, or as a resistance strategy or is simply not interested.  

Power Questions to Ask

(i) If You have More Power

  • What progress are you making against each of your objectives
  • What have you actually achieved today, this week/ month
  • How are you feeling about the progress you are making
  • What is your biggest time stealer
  • To what extent are these constraints real or imaginary
  • What are the real priorities that you need to focus on

(ii) If There is an Even Power Balance

  • Why are you too busy
  • How does this compete with your other priorities
  • What is stopping you doing this right now
  • How does this work fit with your longer term plans
  • In what ways would you benefit by making this a priority
  • Who is preventing you from agreeing to do this work
  • What would you have to stop doing to be able to do this

(ii) If You have Less Power

  • How does this fit with your other priorities
  • What do  you need from me to be able to schedule this task
  • How can I help to make it easy for you to do this
  • Is there any other reason for not being able to do this

16. No Invitation

The tactic of leaving people off distribution list so they miss important meetings or information.

Conversation to Have

“This is still happening and we have spoken about it before. I have to be on this list and need you to make that happen. So why don’t we have an honest and frank discussion about what is getting in the way here and plan a better process together.”

17. The Caucus

Coercing people behind the scenes before an important meeting, debate or discussion.

Power Question to Ask

  • What are you really hoping to get out of this conversation?
  • What are you suggesting
  • Why would supporting your idea be good for business
  • Why talk to me now? 
  • Why not raise it in the meeting?

“It appears to me that you’re unusually keen to have my support on this, and I am not convinced that we both have the same view if what needs to be decided at the meeting for the good of the organisation. Can we put our cards on the table and have the real conversation?”

18. Rock and a Hard Place

Manipulating people by offering limited or fixed choices expecting the victim to choose the lesser of two evils.

Power Question to Ask

  • Can you explain the rationale behind the two options?
  • What are the options available
  • Which would you recommend and why
  • What would happen if i chose neither option

19. My hands are Tied

Pretending to be helpless due to the influence of a higher authority or process, when under the same circumstances but with a different person, there would be a different outcome. 

Power Question to Ask

  • What would need to happen for this rule to be flexed slightly
  • Under what circumstances has this rule been modified in the past
  • What did your boss actually say when you asked them about my request
  • What were the circumstances under which this rule was modified for (insert name)?
  • In what ways is my request different from his
  • What if we come up with creative ways of making this okay for you
  • How would you feel if I talk to (higher authority’s name) directly?
  • What is getting in the way if you saying yes

20. We are Right Behind You

The tactic of setting someone up as spokesperson, encouraging risk taking and falsely suggesting backup and support, which will usually vanish at the first sign of conflict or problems.

Power Question to Ask

  • What stops you from taking action yourself
  • What makes you think that I would be successful
  • What is in it for me, for taking this risk

21. Re-Structure

The tactic of reorganizing a team or department specifically to get an unwanted person out .

Action Plan

  • Be prepared for your next job
  • Do some reflection – Be honest to yourself what have you done to prompt their action. 
  • e.g  Performance, what powerful people you might have unwittingly crossed, rituals broken
  • Understanding what happens to ensure that you don’t make the same mistake again

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