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Volume 22, Issue 34;   August 31, 2022: Covert Obstruction in Teams: II

Covert Obstruction in Teams: II


Some organizational initiatives enjoy the full support of the teams responsible for executing them. But some repeatedly confront attempts to deprive them of resources or to limit their progress. When team members covertly obstruct progress, what techniques do they use?
Traffic bollards in Sofia, Bulgaria, let trams pass by then deploy again

Traffic bollards in Sofia, Bulgaria, let trams pass by then deploy again. The retractable bollards obstruct access to the tram right-of-way when not retracted, but when retracted they permit free access for trams to cross the road.

Retractable bollards like these remind us that a team member who engages in covert obstruction of some team effort might perform at a high level for other team efforts.

Image (cc) by SA 3.0 by Apostoloff, courtesy Wikimedia.

In Part I of this exploration, I noted that some team members are fully committed to obstructing their teams' progress with respect to a given initiative. The position of an obstructers is difficult, for they must pursue subversion of their teams covertly. Whatever they do to obstruct their team's progress must appear to be supportive of the team's goal.

Covert action is required for three reasons. First, and most obviously, if the obstructer's actions are discovered, he or she could be reassigned or terminated, which would end the obstructer's ability to obstruct the team's effort. Second, the obstructer needs access to information about the team's current efforts and plans for the immediate future. The obstructer needs this information for planning obstructive actions, but access to it might be constricted if the obstructer is seen as acting in opposition to the team's efforts. Finally, that same information is also useful to the obstructer's allies and co-conspirators, within the team or elsewhere, if any. Whatever the obstructer does (or doesn't do) must appear to be intended to be supportive.

More examples of covert obstruction

What follows is Part II of a little catalogue of covert obstruction tactics. As in Part I, I use the names Oscar (he/him) or Olivia (she/her) to refer to the Obstructer.

Abusing consensus
Consensus is a form of group decision-making in which the group decides to adopt a decision only if there are no members strongly opposed. The decision is adopted if all members are either neutral or supportive. Because a single opponent can kill the measure, reaching consensus usually entails detailed, thorough airing of views.
Reaching The position of obstructers is difficult. In
whatever way they choose to obstruct their
team's progress, they must always appear
to be working to support the team's goal.
consensus can be a time-consuming process. But the investment of time is worthwhile when all members are well versed in the issue, and when a thoughtful airing of issues is required. Requiring that the team proceed only on the basis of consensus is therefore one way of slowing progress. In other circumstances, it can be wasteful and crippling. Oscar abuses the consensus process when he demands that it be applied to decisions in which the benefits of consensus are marginal or negligible.
Limiting availability for meetings
By limiting her availability for meetings, Olivia limits the ability of her team to resolve open issues. This tactic is especially effective when the team has decided that a particular issue requires a consensus-based decision.
But Olivia's limited availability has broader impact. Meetings are delayed until she is available. When unexpected events arise, rescheduling meetings is difficult unless the team can push the meeting into the future. When meetings do occur, Olivia arrives late, or leaves early, or "steps out" repeatedly to deal with phone calls or texts. Delays and confusion are the results.
But if Olivia's limited availability is covert obstruction, she avoids being tagged as obstructive. She isn't obstructing — she's just "over-committed." So Olivia can implement a part of her obstruction strategy by becoming involved in numerous initiatives.
Withholding information
In some situations, the discovery of small bits of information can render unnecessary hours of discussion, or days or weeks of work. Even minimal experience of project work confirms this. But suppressing the availability of critical information is only one way to obstruct progress. Degrading the credibility of critical information is another. In effect, degrading the credibility of the information causes some team members to decline to accept it as correct, even if it is correct. That can have the same impact on team progress as suppressing the information altogether.
Techniques for falsely degrading the credibility of information are easily masked as honest and sincere. That masking is what makes these tactics so compatible with covert obstruction strategies. For example, Oscar can raise questions — or spread lies — about the professionalism of the person who is the source of the information. Or he can repeat false stories about the consequences of relying on that source for this information or even or unrelated information.
Swerving near deadlines
As the team approaches a deadline, it isn't unusual for someone to discover that some piece of the work is incomplete or defective in some way. People then scurry around searching for a way to mend the workpiece in time to meet the deadline. Often these efforts succeed. They're so common that these situations have a generic name: fire drill. When they occur, people are likely to assume that they're genuine. That's why Oscar might be able to escape notice as he covertly obstructs the team using one of these fire drills.
To manufacture a fire drill, all he need do is withhold until the deadline information he has about a defect or a sudden change in requirements.
Oscar's purpose might or might not be related to the issue that precipitates the fire drill. He might be more interested in creating the distraction the fire drill provides, and in allocating people to the fire drill rather than some other matter that he wants to obstruct.
Elaborating the team's mission
Elaboration is another technique of obstruction that masquerades as constructive effort. The masquerade is convincing because people who mean well so often undertake elaboration. In elaboration, the team adopts a strategy that could achieve its stated objective, but it does so as a special case of having solved a more difficult and more general problem.
Elaboration is obstructive because it so rarely succeeds. The failures usually trace to the difficulty of anticipating the complexity of implementing the generalization. But the obstruction is covert because elaboration is so seductive and inspiring. That's why Olivia has so little difficulty in recruiting allies to her efforts. Indeed, recruiting can be so successful that the role she plays in the obstruction (beyond initially advocating elaboration) might be very minor.

Last words

Skilled covert obstructers know how to take steps that are obstructive, but which seem to be intended to be supportive of team goals. That's why covert obstruction tactics can be difficult to distinguish from more ordinary performance issues. And an obstructer who's selective about which efforts to obstruct and which not to obstruct can make detection even more difficult. So track questionable behavior over time. The perspective of time can make patterns recognizable. First in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: Incoherent Initiatives  Next Issue

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