Obstructionism is the intentional, often covert, attempt to subvert, confuse, or delay the efforts of the group or team. It is toxic to collaboration, it is expensive to the organization, and it is fairly common. If you've worked in teams for five years or so, you've almost certainly experienced obstructionism. If you've worked for even one year, you've probably also experienced obstructionism, but you might not have recognized it.
Motives for obstruction are numerous. Perhaps the simplest motive is the desire of a political operator to delay or subvert a rival's effort. But some obstructors simply want to avoid the embarrassment and pressure of being in the critical path of a project; by obstructing progress elsewhere, they gain time to complete their own tasks before those tasks slide into the critical path.
Since motives can be far more complex than tactics, we begin the discussion of obstructionism with a look at tactics. Here's Part I of a little catalog of tactics in common use by people who seek to obstruct group efforts. See "Obstructionist Tactics: II," Point Lookout for July 30, 2008, for more.
- To stonewall is to refuse to provide information that others need to advance the organizational agenda. It is often done with finesse, for example, by delaying responses to requests, by providing disingenuously non-responsive responses, or by endlessly responding to requests with requests for elaboration of the initial request. More
- Roiling is a technique used in group debate, in which the roiler heats up the debate or keeps the debate heated, or keeps questions open, forestalling consensus and convergence. The roiler often tries to instigate toxic conflict between other group members.
- Obstructionism is toxic to
collaboration, expensive to
the organization, and
- This technique is most available to managers at levels higher than the team members. By applying the team's resources to efforts other than those to which those resources had already been committed, the manager effects an up-and-down pattern in the level of resources available to the targeted team. The repeated stand-up and stand-down costs depress the effective utilization rate of the resources in question, but they are charged to the targeted team's budget at full rate for the periods during which they are available. For extra effect, the re-allocating manager might decline to provide estimates of when the resources in question will be available, which limits the ability of the team's lead to plan activities.
- Dysfunctional creativity
- An obstructionist technique useful not only in debate, but also at the organizational scale, is creating a new idea or introducing innovations as a means of making decisions more complex. Increasing the complexity of the question at hand introduces delay. If the team members elect to ignore or bypass the offering, they risk being charged later with recklessness, especially if the approach they did select encounters difficulty. In any case, they're immediately vulnerable to charges of closed-mindedness or favoritism if they reject the offering.
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More articles on Workplace Politics:
- The High Cost of Low Trust: II
- Truly paying attention to Trust at work is rare, in part, because we don't fully appreciate what distrust
really costs. Here's Part II of a little catalog of how we cope with distrust, and how we pay for it.
- On Being the Canary
- Nobody else seems to be concerned about what's going on. You are. Should you raise the issue? What are
the risks? What are the risks of not raising the issue?
- How Pet Projects Get Resources: Cleverness
- When pet projects thrive in an organization, they sometimes depend on the clever tactics of those who
nurture them to secure resources despite conflict with organizational priorities. How does this happen?
- Cultural Indicators of Political Risk
- Because of fire risk, hiking in dry forests during dry seasons can be dangerous. In the forest, we stay
safe from fire if we attend to the indicators of fire risk. In the workplace, do you know the indicators
of political risk?
- Influence and Belief Perseverance
- Belief perseverance is the pattern that causes us to cling more tightly to our beliefs when contradictory
information arrives. Those who understand belief perseverance can use it to manipulate others.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming March 21: Narcissistic Behavior at Work: III
- People who behave narcissistically tend to regard themselves as special. They systematically place their own interests and welfare ahead of anyone or anything else. In this part of the series we consider how this claimed specialness affects the organization and its people. Available here and by RSS on March 21.
- And on March 28: Narcissistic Behavior at Work: IV
- Narcissistic behavior at work is more damaging than rudeness or egotism. It leads to faulty decisions that compromise organizational missions. In this part of the series we examine the effects of constant demands for attention and admiration. Available here and by RSS on March 28.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
- Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.
Beware any resource that speaks of "winning" at workplace politics or "defeating" it. You can benefit or not, but there is no score-keeping, and it isn't a game.