Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 19, Issue 13;   March 27, 2019: Stone-Throwers at Meetings: II

Stone-Throwers at Meetings: II

by

A stone-thrower in a meeting is someone who is determined to halt forward progress. Motives vary, from embarrassing the chair to holding the meeting hostage in exchange for advancing an agenda. What can chairs do about stone-throwers?
The U.S. Senate Chamber in 2011

The U.S. Senate Chamber in 2011. The U.S. Senate is so heavily burdened with procedural tools for blocking progress that it has been called the place where "legislation goes to die." Obstructive tactics are so refined there that some obstructionist senators have actually obstructed the attempts of others to obstruct legislation. Photo courtesy the U.S. Architect of the Capitol.

As defined last time, a stone-thrower in a meeting is someone who tries to halt forward progress, either for private or political reasons. Stone-throwers use tactics that differ from the tactics of dissenters, who merely disagree with the agenda of the meeting or the general direction of the group. Dissenters express their disagreement forthrightly. They try to persuade the group to take a different path. But when they fail, they go along with the group, or they might exit the group either immediately or in the near term. Dissenters don't obstruct. They don't try to prevent the group from making any kind of forward progress.

Some chairs are incompetent, and their incompetence sometimes induces others to obstruct — to become stone-throwers. Set that case aside for another time. For now, consider only the case of the reasonable, competent chair trying to lead the meeting or the team in a direction that someone — the stone-thrower — objects to.

Stone-throwers obstruct. They're determined not to let the group move forward at all.

So if the chair uses the "Two-Part Sealed Response" described last time, and the stone-thrower persists, additional action is necessary if the chair and presumably the rest of the group want to return to making progress toward the objective. Below is a collection of tactics and strategies for dealing with stone-throwers who persist. In what follows, I'll use the names Stacy or Stan for the stone-thrower, and Charlie or Cheryl for the chair.

Recognize that the stone-thrower's behavior is a performance issue
Dissenting from Stone-throwers obstruct. They're
determined not to let the
group move forward at all.
the chair's view of the group's objectives is not a performance issue. Dissent is valuable; the right to dissent must be protected. (See "Appreciate Differences," Point Lookout for March 14, 2001.) But obstruction is a performance issue. Stone throwing is a tactic of obstruction.
Unless Stan is a direct subordinate of Cheryl's, Cheryl must deal with this performance issue through Stan's supervisor. Contact with the supervisor might be direct or indirect or a combination of both, depending on formal and personal relationships. See "Performance Issues for Non-Supervisors," Point Lookout for July 12, 2017, for more about handling performance issues.
For the chair: enlist the assistance of other attendees
If the chair anticipates that a stone-thrower might take action at the next meeting, preparation might help. The chair can ask other attendees to intercede if the chair's interventions prove ineffective during the meeting. Candidate allies of greatest value are those who formally or informally outrank the stone-thrower. Especially effective can be brief comments by these allies directly to Stacy, along the lines of, "Stacy, we've heard what you've been saying, and we need to move on right now, so let's the two of us discuss this afterwards, OK?"
Even attendees of lower rank can be help, but they probably should address the chair rather than the stone-thrower. Example: "Charlie, we already approved the agenda, and Stan's objections would take us back to re-hashing the agenda, so can we please continue with the agenda item we were discussing?"
Monitor lobbying activity
Some stone-throwers engage in "lobbying" activity — contact with meeting attendees outside the meeting context. They do so if they believe they can consolidate a faction that can aid them in obstructing progress. This activity can be most effective when it occurs outside the awareness of the chair.
Cheryl would be wise to alert allies to the possibility that Stan might seek their support outside the meeting context. She can ask her allies to listen to Stan's arguments and pass them along to her in advance of the meeting, to enable her to craft responses and take coordinated, preventive action.
For other attendees: support the chair if support fits for you
Other attendees of lesser formal or informal rank can also play important roles in limiting the effectiveness of the stone-thrower. If it fits, they can support the chair when he or she asks openly for support, as in a vote, or a request for consensus. In discussions of any issues the stone-thrower raises, support can be reasoned and reasonable counterpoints to the stone-thrower's points. Or support can be agreement with closing off of discussions the stone-thrower initiates, or suggestions to close them off.
Opposition to Stacy's views can be politically risky. Attendees who intend to support Charlie in opposing Stacy should be certain that they've managed those risks before accepting them.
Be alert to covert stone throwing
Covert stone throwing can occur in a variety of forms. An experienced political actor pretending not to throw stones might persuade less-experienced or naïve individuals to throw stones without their realizing they're throwing stones. Or someone who seems reasonable, and who has never acted to obstruct progress, might seek a key position leading a sub-team so as to be well positioned to act obstructively. And much more.
When forward progress stalls, even when stone throwing isn't obviously happening, covert stone throwing is a possibility. Chairs would be wise to carefully vet anyone who steps forward to assume leadership responsibilities. And when someone does obstruct, it's best to assume innocent motives until evidence of intentional stone throwing is clear.

Progress in solving difficult problems can be slow or intermittent. Stone throwing is only one of many possible explanations. But when it does happen, set the primary objective aside temporarily. Ending the stone throwing becomes the new primary objective. First in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: Career Opportunity or Career Trap: I  Next Issue

101 Tips for Effective MeetingsDo you spend your days scurrying from meeting to meeting? Do you ever wonder if all these meetings are really necessary? (They aren't) Or whether there isn't some better way to get this work done? (There is) Read 101 Tips for Effective Meetings to learn how to make meetings much more productive and less stressful — and a lot more rare. Order Now!

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