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 nonresponsive 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.
We'll continue our survey of obstructionist tactics next time. Next in this series Top Next Issue
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More articles on Workplace Politics:
- Conflicts of Interest in Reporting
- Reporting is the process that informs us about how things are going in the organization and its efforts.
Unfortunately, the people who do the reporting often have a conflict of interest that leads to misleading
and unreliable reports.
- Communication Traps for Virtual Teams: I
- Virtual teams encounter difficulties that rarely confront face-to-face teams. What special challenges
do they face, and what can we do about them?
- OODA at Work
- OODA is a model of decision making that's especially useful in rapidly evolving environments, such as
combat, marketing, politics, and emergency management. Here's a brief overview.
- Embarrassment, Shame, and Guilt at Work: Creation
- Three feelings are often confused with each other: embarrassment, shame, and guilt. To understand how
to cope with these feelings, begin by understanding what different kinds of situations we use when we
create these feelings.
- Appearance Anti-patterns: II
- When we make decisions based on appearance we risk making errors. We create hostile work environments,
disappoint our customers, and create inefficient processes. Maintaining congruence between the appearance
and the substance of things can help.
See also Workplace Politics and Conflict Management for more related articles.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming March 29: Time Slot Recycling: The Risks
- When we can't begin a meeting because some people haven't arrived, we sometimes cancel the meeting and hold a different one, with the people who are in attendance. It might seem like a good way to avoid wasting time, but there are risks. Available here and by RSS on March 29.
- And on April 5: The Fallacy of Division
- Errors of reasoning are pervasive in everyday thought in most organizations. One of the more common errors is called the Fallacy of Division, in which we assume that attributes of a class apply to all members of that class. It leads to ridiculous results. Available here and by RSS on April 5.
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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.
- Wikipedia has a nice article with a list of additional resources
- Some public libraries offer collections. Here's an example from Saskatoon.
- Check my own links collection
- LinkedIn's Office Politics discussion group