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 Top Next Issue
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More articles on Effective Meetings:
- Discussus Interruptus
- You're chairing a meeting, and to your dismay, things get out of hand. People interrupt each other so
often that nobody can complete a thought, and some people dominate the meeting. What can you do?
- Towards More Gracious Disagreement
- We spend a sizable chunk of time correcting each other. Some believe that we win points by being right,
or lose points by being wrong, but nobody seems to know who keeps the official score. Here are some
thoughts to help you kick the habit.
- Remote Facilitation in Synchronous Contexts: III
- Facilitators of synchronous distributed meetings (meetings that occur in real time, via telephone or
video) can make life much easier for everyone by taking steps before the meeting starts. Here's Part
III of a little catalog of suggestions for remote facilitators.
- Exploiting Failed Ideas
- When the approach you've been using fails, how do you go about devising Plan B? Or Plan C? Here are
some ways to find new approaches by examining failures.
- The End-to-End Cost of Meetings: I
- By now, most of us realize how expensive meetings are. Um, well, maybe not. Here's a look at some of
the most-often overlooked costs of meetings.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming 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.
- 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.
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