Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 10, Issue 34;   August 25, 2010:

What Insubordinate Nonsubordinates Want: II

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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?
Comparison of energy consumption of compact fluorescent bulbs with incandescent bulbs

A comparison of energy consumption of compact fluorescent (CFL) bulbs with incandescent bulbs. The ratio is about 9:1 when used identically. Even taking into account the possibility that higher efficiency leads to more profligate use, CFLs are an effective way to reduce energy consumption. Despite the obvious social benefits, it has been politically difficult in the U.S. to outlaw the use of incandescents, even in new installations. Advocates of CFLs would be unwise to view this as anything other than the results of attachment to the status quo, especially by the energy industry, which would suffer some short-term demand constriction if CFL adoption were accelerated. Nevertheless, some CFL advocates do view opposition to mandated adoption as evidence for an energy conspiracy. Similarly, some of those who benefit from elevated energy consumption view CFL advocates as either engaged in a conspiracy against them, or perhaps as unwitting dupes of clever conspirators, who are trying to disrupt the energy industry in the name of energy conservation. Photo courtesy Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

Last time we began exploring why people who don't report to you sometimes decline to cooperate in efforts for which you're legitimately responsible. Our goal is control of our emotions by finding alternative interpretations of uncooperative behavior — alternatives to "He hates me," or other simplistic conjectures. We began with the personal motivations of obstructers.

Let's now examine organizational concerns that might lead to uncooperative behavior. As I did last time, I use C as the name of the person who's championing the effort, and S for the person who's subverting it.

Objecting to the goal
Sometimes the subversion is actually objection to the overall goal. To someone who has been frustrated in modifying that goal, or eliminating it from the organizational agenda, being required to contribute to its achievement can be very bitter indeed. Simple noncompliance becomes a tempting tactic.
If S had previously expressed doubts about the goal, or had issued grave warnings against attempting it, failure might elevate S's status. In such cases, subversive activity isn't so much an attempt to target C as it is an effort to elevate S.
Attachment to what has been
If C's task is related to an organizational change effort, S's noncooperation might actually be something often called resistance, which I prefer to call active persistence. See "Is It Really Resistance?," Point Lookout for January 24, 2001, for more.
It's useful to identify these attachments, because others might be similarly affected. The behavior suggests that the change effort itself is the source of the problem, rather than S.
Delaying tactics
Sometimes the goal of noncooperation is simple delay. Delay might prevent exposure of other problems, or it might conceal delays in seemingly unrelated efforts.
What appears to be sabotage or intentional subversion might actually be a less malevolent attempt to prevent on-time or early completion. Consider not only who might benefit from failure, but also who might benefit from delay.
Favors and deals
S's behavior might What appears to be sabotage
or intentional subversion
might actually be a less
malevolent attempt to prevent
on-time or early completion
be less important to S than it is to someone else. That is, S might be acting on behalf of one or more others, as part of a deal or as a favor. This is rare behavior in most organizations, because it requires a relatively toxic political atmosphere where people believe that such behavior is permissible.
Deals have prices attached to them. If you can outbid the person with whom S has struck a deal, you might gain S's cooperation for a time. Remember, though, that political prices come in both positive and negative forms — as incentives and disincentives, and as rewards and punishments. If S's political partner has a bigger budget for deals — that is, if S has more clout than you have — you probably can't compete in the auction.

Next time we'll examine the role of supervisors in noncompliance situations. First in this series  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: What Insubordinate Nonsubordinates Want: III  Next Issue

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