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. 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:
- Devious Political Tactics: Divide and Conquer, Part I
- While most leaders try to achieve organizational unity, some do use divisive tactics to maintain control,
or to elevate performance by fostering competition. Understanding the risks of these tactics can motivate
you to find another way.
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These beliefs are much more difficult to root out, but sometimes just a little consideration does help.
Here are some examples.
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- Ever since I wrote "How to Undermine Your Subordinates," I've received scads of requests for
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- The Deck Chairs of the Titanic: Task Duration
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We continue our exploration of futile and irrelevant work, this time emphasizing behaviors that extend
- Meets Expectations
- Many performance management systems include ratings such as "meets expectations," "exceeds
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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming July 3: Appearance Antipatterns: 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. Available here and by RSS on July 3.
- And on July 10: Barriers to Accepting Truth: I
- In workplace debates, a widely used strategy involves informing the group of facts or truths of which some participants seem to be unaware. Often, this strategy is ineffective for reasons unrelated to the credibility of the person offering the information. Why does this happen? Available here and by RSS on July 10.
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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.