Divide and Conquer – Meaning, Origin and Usage

Are you facing a complex problem that seems too difficult to overcome? Maybe you are being pitted against a team that has excellent coordination. If so, then now is the perfect time to use the divide and conquer tactic to prevail. Be it in a professional setting or on the battlefield, breaking up the opposition is the key to success. This post unpacks the meaning and origin of this expression.


The basic meaning of divide and conquer is to pit people in one group against each other so that you can benefit. In war, this tactic means to use subversive actions to cause dissent within the ranks and therefore destabilize the enemy. By doing so, it creates an opportunity to prevail. It also means to make any group of people fight amongst themselves to prevent them from banding together to fight against a common cause. Causing problems between people is also an easy way to explain the meaning of the phrase.

It also means splitting up large batches of work into more manageable portions. This allows the work to be completed either by many hands or by a single person at a slower speed. Breaking up tasks into sections to assign to various people is also another meaning of divide and conquer. For example, if you have a 9-room house to clean, instead of assigning one person to do all of the work, break it up into 3 sections and assign it to 3 people to make the load lighter.

Example Usage

“There are elements within the United States that seek to divide and conquer. It is important to stand together despite all odds”.

“Bangladesh was able to secede from Pakistan by putting forth creative divide and conquer tactics in their upper ranks”.

“Those on the outside looking in seek to divide and conquer within the POC community to ensure that the status quo is maintained”.

“A divide and conquer algorithm is a great way to ensure the progression of technical progress over time”.


The idea to divide and conquer was created as a military tactic. It was also called “divide and rule” depending on who was putting forth the tactic and what the end goal happened to be. There are several people credited with creating the strategy. Philip II of Macedon is said to have invented maxim divide et impera, which is an older form of the phrase. The tactic was then used by Julius Caesar, who was the ruler of Rome, and also Napoleon, the French emperor.

The original divide et impera principle that lies behind the mental model of divide and rule from a military context, has been used in politics since Ancient times and has been attributed to Philip II of Macedon and used by Julius Caesar and French emperor Napoleon. Niccolò Machiavelli wrote Book VI of The Art of War in 1521 in which he outlined the divide and conquer strategy and how to implement it within the confines of war. The divide and conquer strategy can be traced as well to Louis XI of France, Sir Francis Bacon, Immanuel Kant, and even James Madison.

Phrases Similar to Divide and Conquer

  • Come between
  • Divide
  • Sow discord
  • Drive a wedge
  • Strain
  • Ignite tensions
  • Set against

Phrases Opposite to Divide and Conquer

  • Coordinate
  • Bring together
  • Comingle
  • Create an accord

What is the Correct Saying?

  • The proper way to say the phrase is - divide and conquer.

Ways People May Incorrectly Say Divide and Conquer

Some ways that divide and conquer is used incorrectly are:

  • Teaching people to divide and conquer is the best way to build teamwork.
  • If you allow your employees to divide and conquer among themselves, they will learn how to best serve your customers.

Acceptable Ways to Phrase Divide and Conquer

Some ways that divide and conquer is used correctly are:

  • The best way to get the opposing team to fumble is by using tactics that allow you to divide and conquer on the field.
  • Be careful who you allow within your inner circle. Many people pretend to be your friend just to divide and conquer by sowing discord.
  • The military was able to overcome their advance even with smaller numbers by dividing and conquering the enemy in their own camp.
  • The tactic of divide and conquer has been used throughout history as a way to usurp and undermine the authority of reigning governments.

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