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Volume 22, Issue 33;   August 24, 2022: Covert Obstruction in Teams: I

Covert Obstruction in Teams: I


Some organizational initiatives are funded and progressing, despite opposition. They continue to confront attempts to deprive them of resources or to limit their progress. When team members covertly obstruct progress, what techniques do they use?
Bollards in Washington, D.C., customized to meet National Capital Planning Commission's design recommendations

Bollards in Washington, D.C., customized to meet National Capital Planning Commission's design recommendations. Bollards in this context provide security by obstructing access to a protected area. They prevent accidental or intentional intrusion of vehicles into the protected area. This particular manifestation is designed not to look like an obstruction. That is, it is designed to provide covert obstruction. Image by U.S. Government Accountability Office, courtesy Wikimedia.

Some teams can't make forward progress because one of their members is determined to prevent forward progress. The motives of obstructers vary. One common motive is a desire for attention. Another is preventing the progress of rivals for leadership or recognition. A third is steering the initiative away from areas that a rival initiative intends to capture.

You might have encountered some other examples in your organization. Resolving obstruction by addressing the purposes of obstructers is possible, but another approach is more likely to produce positive results. That approach involves first identifying obstruction and then limiting the effectiveness of obstructive tactics.

Identifying obstructive tactics is easy when the obstructers engage in overt obstruction — that is, when they aren't trying to hide what they're doing. That's why the problem cases involve covert obstruction. In covert obstruction, the perpetrator hides in plain sight. That is, covertly obstructive tactics are tactics that appear to be honest attempts to help the team reach its objective. But those tactics are actually intended to delay, disrupt, or prevent progress, or at least, to contaminate results.

Four examples of covertly obstructive tactics

Most Identifying obstructive tactics is
easy when obstructers aren't
trying to hide what they're doing
of the tactics in the catalog below don't work so well if the team members know how to recognize them. Teams can deter the use of these tactics if team members can name a tactic and recognize it immediately when an obstructer uses it. That's the spirit in which I offer this little catalog of obstructive tactics. In what follows, I use the names Oscar (he/him) or Olivia (she/her) to refer to the obstructer.

Asking disingenuous questions
A question is disingenuous if it's insincere. Typically the questioner has an agenda that differs from merely seeking information. For example, suppose the questioner suspects that a proposed problem solution has a fatal weakness. Although the problem solution complies with Regulation R-2022, it doesn't anticipate the coming changes in Regulation R in year 2023. That questioner might then ask, "Is this approach compliant with Regulation R-2022?" The questioner knows that the solution is 2022 compliant. He or she is waiting to pounce if the respondent fails to mention the coming changes in 2023.
Disingenuous questions provide a means of sowing discord in the team. But since one can rarely be certain in the moment that a particular question is disingenuous, exposure of the tactic is more likely when it is used frequently. The obstructer can therefore evade detection for a time by using the tactic sparingly.
Raising wedge issues
A wedge issue is one that divides the team, beyond the level of polite disagreement. Team members differ strongly about how, when, or how well to address the issue. Oscar seeks wedge issues because raising them ignites debate. Whether the issue must be resolved in the immediate future is unimportant to him. Igniting debate is his goal, because it obstructs progress on more important matters.
Oscar himself might or might not have a position on the wedge issue. And he might or might not be knowledgeable enough to participate in the debate. His participation isn't important. His goals are the debate itself, and the resulting delays and distraction.
Raising low-consequence risk events
A risk event is a potential occurrence that could lead to delay, additional cost, or other harm to the team's effort. A low-consequence risk event is one for which the expected value of the harm is minor, though perhaps somewhat uncertain. By raising the issue of a risk event, Olivia hopes to foment debate and discussion, distracting the team from more important matters.
Because the expected value of the harm is uncertain, the debate Olivia ignites is unlikely to have an obvious resolution. The debate can continue for some time, and she can raise the issue repeatedly. To most of her team members, she seems concerned, cautious, and conscientious. But her real objective is distraction and delay.
Techniques I include in the category of withholding are saying nothing, not responding to queries, or failing to mention useful information or helpful suggestions. Withholding is perhaps the most useful tactic of covert obstruction, because it seems not to be an overt act. It can be an overt act, but only if there is evidence that Oscar could have said something useful, or could have responded to queries, or could have made a helpful suggestion, but did none of those things.
Two approaches for dealing with Oscar's withholding are available: Confrontation and Collaboration. In Confrontation, we openly accuse Oscar of "passive obstruction" by failing to provide what he knows or by failing to respond to queries. This tactic is tempting, but not recommended. It's likely to cause an irremediable rift in the team, between Oscar's allies and Oscar's foes. In Collaboration, the team establishes a "special working group" to resolve the matters at hand. Oscar is invited to join. He'll probably accept if the working group seems likely to resolve the matter without him. In open discussion within that group, Oscar will likely find difficulty maintaining silence.

Next time, we continue this exploration with four more examples of covert obstruction tactics.  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Covert Obstruction in Teams: II  Next Issue

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