Obstructionism is the intentional, often covert, attempt to subvert, confuse, or delay the efforts of the group or team. It is toxic to collaboration, it is expensive to the organization, and it is fairly common. If you've worked in teams for five years or so, you've almost certainly experienced obstructionism. If you've worked for even one year, you've probably also experienced obstructionism, but you might not have recognized it.
Motives for obstruction are numerous. Perhaps the simplest motive is the desire of a political operator to delay or subvert a rival's effort. But some obstructors simply want to avoid the embarrassment and pressure of being in the critical path of a project; by obstructing progress elsewhere, they gain time to complete their own tasks before those tasks slide into the critical path.
Since motives can be far more complex than tactics, we begin the discussion of obstructionism with a look at tactics. Here's Part I of a little catalog of tactics in common use by people who seek to obstruct group efforts. See "Obstructionist Tactics: II," Point Lookout for July 30, 2008, for more.
- To stonewall is to refuse to provide information that others need to advance the organizational agenda. It is often done with finesse, for example, by delaying responses to requests, by providing disingenuously non-responsive responses, or by endlessly responding to requests with requests for elaboration of the initial request. More
- Roiling is a technique used in group debate, in which the roiler heats up the debate or keeps the debate heated, or keeps questions open, forestalling consensus and convergence. The roiler often tries to instigate toxic conflict between other group members.
- Obstructionism is toxic to
collaboration, expensive to
the organization, and
- This technique is most available to managers at levels higher than the team members. By applying the team's resources to efforts other than those to which those resources had already been committed, the manager effects an up-and-down pattern in the level of resources available to the targeted team. The repeated stand-up and stand-down costs depress the effective utilization rate of the resources in question, but they are charged to the targeted team's budget at full rate for the periods during which they are available. For extra effect, the re-allocating manager might decline to provide estimates of when the resources in question will be available, which limits the ability of the team's lead to plan activities.
- Dysfunctional creativity
- An obstructionist technique useful not only in debate, but also at the organizational scale, is creating a new idea or introducing innovations as a means of making decisions more complex. Increasing the complexity of the question at hand introduces delay. If the team members elect to ignore or bypass the offering, they risk being charged later with recklessness, especially if the approach they did select encounters difficulty. In any case, they're immediately vulnerable to charges of closed-mindedness or favoritism if they reject the offering.
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More articles on Workplace Politics:
- Group Problem-Solving Tangles
- When teams solve problems together, discussions of proposed solutions usually focus on combinations
of what the solution will do, how much it will cost, how long it will take, and much more. Disentangling
these threads can make discussions much more effective.
- Failure Foreordained
- Performance Improvement Plans help supervisors guide their subordinates toward improved performance.
But they can also be used to develop documentation to support termination. How can subordinates tell
whether a PIP is a real opportunity to improve?
- The End-to-End Cost of Meetings: I
- By now, most of us realize how expensive meetings are. Um, well, maybe not. Here's a look at some of
the most-often overlooked costs of meetings.
- Just Make It Happen
- Many idolize the no-nonsense manager who says, "I don't want to hear excuses, just make it happen."
We associate that stance with strong leadership. Sometimes, though, it's little more than abuse motivated
by ambition or ignorance — or both.
- Problem Displacement by Intention
- When solving problems creates new problems, or creates problems elsewhere, we say that problem displacement
has occurred. Sometimes it's intentional.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming October 17: Overt Belligerence in Meetings
- Some meetings lose their way in vain attempts to mollify a belligerent participant who simply will not be mollified. Here's one scenario that fits this pattern. Available here and by RSS on October 17.
- And on October 24: Conversation Irritants: I
- Conversations at work can be frustrating even when everyone tries to be polite, clear, and unambiguous. But some people actually try to be nasty, unclear, and ambiguous. Here's Part I of a small collection of their techniques. Available here and by RSS on October 24.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
- Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.
Beware any resource that speaks of "winning" at workplace politics or "defeating" it. You can benefit or not, but there is no score-keeping, and it isn't a game.