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 Nonsupervisors," 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:
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- Microsoft PowerPoint is a useful tool. Many of us use it daily to create presentations that guide meetings
or focus discussions. Like all tools, it can be abused — it can be a substitute for constructive
dialog, and even for thought. What can we do about PowerPoint abuse?
- Games for Meetings: III
- We spend a lot of time and emotional energy in meetings, much of it engaged in any of dozens of ritualized
games. Here's Part III of a little catalog of some of our favorites, and what we could do about them.
- How to Ruin Meetings
- Much has been written about how to conduct meetings effectively. Here are some reliable techniques for
doing something else altogether.
- Effects of Shared Information Bias: I
- Shared information bias is the tendency for group discussions to emphasize what everyone already knows.
It's widely believed to lead to bad decisions. But it can do much more damage than that.
- Virtual Meetings: Then and Now
- Now that the COVID-19 pandemic has led to stay-at-home orders that affect many of us, more of our meetings
are virtual, and the virtual meetings we used to conduct are somewhat changed. How have they changed,
and what can we do about it?
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming October 4: Self-Importance and Conversational Narcissism at Work: I
- Conversational narcissism is a set of behaviors that participants use to focus the exchange on their own self-interest rather than the shared objective. This post emphasizes the role of these behaviors in advancing a narcissist's sense of self-importance. Available here and by RSS on October 4.
- And on October 11: Self-Importance and Conversational Narcissism at Work: II
- Self-importance is one of four major themes of conversational narcissism. Knowing how to recognize the patterns of conversational narcissism is a fundamental skill needed for controlling it. Here are eight examples that emphasize self-importance. Available here and by RSS on October 11.
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