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 doingof 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 Top Next Issue
Is every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. More info
Your comments are welcomeWould you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenHoWzUJVeioCfozEIner@ChacbnsTPttsdDaRAswloCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.
About Point Lookout
Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.
Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.
Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.
Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.
More articles on Conflict Management:
- Rapid-Fire Attacks
- Someone asks you a question. Within seconds of starting to reply, you're hit with another question,
or a rejection of your reply. Abusively. The pattern repeats. And repeats again. And again. You're being
attacked. What can you do?
- Grace Under Fire: II
- When we debate at work, things sometimes turn unpleasant. Out of control, one party might maneuver the
other into losing control. If we have better tools for recognizing these tactics, we're better able
to maintain self-control. Here's Part II of such a toolkit.
- Patterns of Conflict Escalation: II
- When simple workplace disagreements evolve into workplace warfare, they often do so following recognizable
patterns. If we can recognize the patterns early, we can intervene to prevent serious damage to relationships.
Here's Part II of a catalog of some of those patterns.
- Characterization Risk
- To characterize is to offer a description of a person, event, or concept. Characterizations are usually
judgmental, and usually serve one side of a debate. And they often make trouble.
- Risk Acceptance: Naïve Realism
- When we suddenly notice a "project-killer" risk that hasn't yet materialized, we sometimes
accept the risk even though we know how seriously it threatens the effort. A psychological phenomenon
known as naïve realism plays a role in this behavior.
See also Conflict Management and Workplace Politics for more related articles.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming June 14: Pseudo-Collaborations
- Most workplace collaborations produce results of value. But some collaborations — pseudo-collaborations — are inherently incapable of producing value, due to performance management systems, or lack of authority, or lack of access to information. Available here and by RSS on June 14.
- And on June 21: Asking Burning Questions
- When we suddenly realize that an important question needs answering, directly asking that question in a meeting might not be an effective way to focus the attention of the group. There are risks. Fortunately, there are also ways to manage those risks. Available here and by RSS on June 21.
I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenHoWzUJVeioCfozEIner@ChacbnsTPttsdDaRAswloCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.
Get the ebook!
Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:
- Get 2001-2 in Geese Don't Land on Twigs (PDF, )
- Get 2003-4 in Why Dogs Wag (PDF, )
- Get 2005-6 in Loopy Things We Do (PDF, )
- Get 2007-8 in Things We Believe That Maybe Aren't So True (PDF, )
- Get 2009-10 in The Questions Not Asked (PDF, )
- Get all of the first twelve years (2001-2012) in The Collected Issues of Point Lookout (PDF, )
Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500-1000 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info