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:
- What Insubordinate Non-Subordinates Want: I
- When you're responsible for an organizational function, and someone not reporting to you won't recognize
your authority, or doesn't comply with policies you rightfully established, you have a hard time carrying
out your responsibilities. Why does this happen?
- Managing Non-Content Risks: I
- When project teams and their sponsors manage risk, they usually focus on those risks most closely associated
with the tasks — content risks. Meanwhile, other risks — non-content risks — get less
attention. Among these are risks related to the processes and politics by which the organization gets
- Holding Back: I
- When members of teams or groups hold back their efforts toward achieving group goals, schedule and budget
problems can arise, along with frustration and destructive intra-group conflict. What causes this behavior?
- Suppressing Dissent: II
- Disagreeing with the majority in a meeting, or in some cases, merely disagreeing with the Leader, can
lead to isolation and other personal difficulties. Here is Part II of a set of tactics used by Leaders
who choose not to tolerate differences of opinion, emphasizing the meeting context.
- Conversation Despots
- Some people insist that conversations reach their personally favored conclusions, no matter what others
want. Here are some of their tactics.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming April 1: Incompetence: Traps and Snares
- Sometimes people judge as incompetent colleagues who are unprepared to carry out their responsibilities. Some of these "incompetents" are trapped or ensnared in incompetence, unable to acquire the ability to do their jobs. Available here and by RSS on April 1.
- And on April 8: Intentionally Misreporting Status: I
- When we report the status of the work we do, we sometimes confront the temptation to embellish the good news or soften the bad news. How can we best deal with these obstacles to reporting status with integrity? Available here and by RSS on April 8.
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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.