In Part I of our discussion of stonewalling tactics, we looked at ploys that involve misrepresentations. In this Part II, we explore tactics that rely on bureaucratic behavior.
- Appeal to authority
- The appeal to authority is a transfer of responsibility for the obstruction from the stonewaller to someone whose authority you dare not question. Usually, the invoked authority is a co-conspirator. Example: "Personally, I'd like to tell you, but I've been instructed to withhold that information until it can be released."
- The need to invoke authority is tantamount to an admission of weakness. Press your case. One possible response to the appeal to authority: "OK, thanks, I'll just ask her." Of course, if the authority is a co-conspirator, this is somewhat risky, because the stonewaller might just say, "OK, knock yourself out." An alternative: "OK, I'll see what I can find out elsewhere." Because the alternative is non-specific, stonewallers sometimes take such responses more seriously.
- Continued study
- At the organizational scale, this tactic takes the form of chartering commissions, creating task forces, or adding the issue to the agenda of next month's committee meeting. At the personal scale, the response is of the form, "I don't know just now, but I'll research it and get back to you," or, "I don't decide that, but I'll look into it for you." It's a delay, rather than a denial.
- At the organizational scale, this tactic is available only to those who control resources. As such, it's an abuse of power, and only those who have greater organizational power can counter it. At the personal scale, it's an excuse so flimsy that it would be foolish to use it unless it's already backed up by more powerful means. Here, too, power is required for an effective response. If you expect that the stonewaller might employ this tactic, find a powerful ally first, and make the alliance clear along with your request.
- Major Major Major
- To defeat bureaucratic stonewalling
you have to assault the wall at
multiple points nearly simultaneously
- This tactic is one of avoidance (named after the character in Joseph Heller's Catch-22) (Order from Amazon.com). The obstructor is unavailable to the obstructed, and rarely returns email or phone calls relevant to any inquiry.
- To contact the obstructor, you'll have to use extraordinary methods. Call at odd hours from varying telephones so as to defeat Caller ID. If you're co-located, drop by after hours or before hours. If you're willing to deny it or blame it on a glitch, write code to send email or text messages every three minutes for eight hours. Anything you can do to include humor might be helpful: send a carved pumpkin, gift-wrapped in a box, with your inquiry inside it.
Bureaucratic stonewallers are more difficult to detect, because their methods appear to be prudent and routine — similar to business as usual. But when they fit a pattern of obstruction, there's usually little doubt. First in this series Top Next Issue
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For more about obstructionist tactics generally, see "Obstructionist Tactics: I," Point Lookout for July 23, 2008.
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More articles on Workplace Politics:
- When All Your Options Are Bad
- When you have several options, and all seem politically risky, what can you do? Here are two guidelines
to finding your way to a good outcome.
- In workplace politics, some people always seem to be seeking information about others, but they give
very little in return. They're pumpers. What can you do to deal with pumpers?
- Obstacles to Finding the Reasons Why
- When we investigate what went wrong, we sometimes encounter obstacles. Interviewing witnesses and participants
doesn't always uncover the reasons why. What are these obstacles?
- Not Really Part of the Team: II
- When some team members hang back, declining to show initiative, we tend to overlook the possibility
that their behavior is a response to something happening within or around the team. Too often we hold
responsible the person who's hanging back. What other explanations are possible?
- 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
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- As we assess the validity of others' statements, we risk making a characteristically human error — we confuse the beauty of their language with the reliability of its meaning. We're easily thrown off by alliteration, anaphora, epistrophe, and chiasmus. Available here and by RSS on December 18.
- And on December 25: Disjoint Awareness
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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.
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