Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 8, Issue 35;   August 27, 2008: Stonewalling: II

Stonewalling: II

by

Last updated: October 20, 2019

Stonewalling is a tactic of obstruction. Some less sophisticated tactics rely on misrepresentation to gum up the works. Those that employ bureaucratic methods are more devious. What can you do about stonewalling?
A section of stone wall at Pueblo Bonito

A typical section of the oldest stone walls at Pueblo Bonito in the Chaco Culture National Historical Park in northwest New Mexico. Although this type of wall (there are five types at Chaco) is made of stone chinked with mud mortar, it nevertheless has the property that removal of any one stone has only a limited effect on wall integrity. So it is with bureaucratic stonewalling — overcoming any single obstacle is unlikely to open a clear path to the goal. To defeat bureaucratic stonewalling you have to assault the wall at multiple points nearly simultaneously, which requires considerable resources. Photo by U.S. National Park Service courtesy of the Internet archive.

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  Go to top Top  Next issue: The Advantages of Political Attack: I  Next Issue

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. More info

For more about obstructionist tactics generally, see "Obstructionist Tactics: I," Point Lookout for July 23, 2008.

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenmhXARWRMUvVyOdHlner@ChacxgDmtwOKrxnripPCoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Workplace Politics:

I'm glad he isn't my bossThere Are No Micromanagers
If you're a manager who micromanages, you're probably trying as best you can to help your organization meet its responsibilities. Still, you might feel that people are unhappy — that whatever you're doing isn't working. There is another way.
Admiral Edward Ratcliffe Garth Russell Evans, first Baron Mountevans of ChelseaGuidelines for Delegation
Mastering the art of delegation can increase your productivity, and help to develop the skills of the people you lead or manage. And it makes them better delegators, too. Here are some guidelines for delegation.
Witchweed (striga hermonthica) a parasitic plantHow Pet Projects Get Resources: Abuse
Pet projects thrive in many organizations — even those that are supposedly "lean and mean." Some nurturers of pet projects abuse their authority to secure resources for their pets. How does this happen?
Red Ball Express troops stack "jerry cans" used to transport gasoline to front-line units during World War II.Inappropriate Levels of Regard
The regard we have for others as people is sometimes influenced by the regard we have for the work they do. Confusing the two is a dangerous error.
George Orwell's 1933 press card photo issued by the Branch of the National Union of JournalistsNarcissistic Behavior at Work: II
Narcissistic behavior at work threatens the enterprise. People who behave narcissistically systematically place their own interests and welfare ahead of anyone or anything else. In this Part II of the series we consider the narcissistic preoccupation with superiority fantasies.

See also Workplace Politics and Conflict Management for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Child's toys known as Chinese finger trapsComing 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.
A portion of the Viet Nam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.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.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenmhXARWRMUvVyOdHlner@ChacxgDmtwOKrxnripPCoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power

Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople 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.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
Please donate!The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!

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.

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics!
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
My free weekly email newsletter gives concrete tips and suggestions for dealing with the challenging but everyday situations we all face.
A Tip A DayA Tip a Day arrives by email, or by RSS Feed, each business day. It's 20 to 30 words at most, and gives you a new perspective on the hassles and rewards of work life. Most tips also contain links to related articles. Free!
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.