Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 9, Issue 47;   November 25, 2009: Action Item Avoidance

Action Item Avoidance


In some teams, members feel so overloaded that they try to avoid any additional tasks. Here are some of the most popular patterns of action item avoidance.
American dwarf mistletoe (Arceuthobium americanum)

American dwarf mistletoe (Arceuthobium americanum). Mistletoe is a hemiparasitic plant, which means that although it is photosynthetic, it does obtain water and nutrients from its host. In the case of dwarf mistletoe, it also obtains photosynthates from its host. Although dwarf mistletoes are fairly host-specific, they infect other species as well, including Ponderosa pine, lodgepole pine, western larch and Douglas fir. In effect, the dwarf mistletoe depends on the host for the "action items" of lifting water and lifting and producing nutrients. In response to infection, some trees create clusters of small twigs and foliage called "witch's brooms."

In teams, consistent action item evasion by some team members can lead to behavior and attitudes analogous to witch's brooms: resentment, polarization, formation of cliques and other symptoms of toxic conflict.

Photo by J. Schmidt, courtesy U.S. National Park Service.

Whether you're a team member, a team lead, or a manager, you need to know how people elude assignments. If you're part of a team that's consistently and seriously overworked, avoiding additional action items is just about your only defense against overload. If others are better at it than you are, you'll end up with more than your share of the load. As a team lead or manager, noticing these patterns can be your first clue that people are overloaded.

To begin, here are some tactics people use to shift burdens to others, unfairly.

  • Never finish action items you already have. That way, you can say, "I have too much on my plate right now."
  • Don't offer new ideas. Offering new ideas is a great way to get asked to execute them. See "The 'What-a-Great-Idea!' Trap," Point Lookout for February 28, 2001, for more.
  • Belong to more than one team. That way, you can always decline action items by saying that your load from the other team is too high.
  • If several heavy action items might be headed your way, taking the earlier light ones gives you a pass to decline the heavy ones later. People see the numbers more clearly than the weight.
  • Get involved in future planning. Then, if someone presses you to start contributing to current efforts, you can say that you expect to be involved in that future effort, and you don't want to over-commit.
  • Offer to assist with, not lead, a critical task that's in serious trouble. The level of effort required can be quite small. If any action items come your way, you can say, "I'm already helping out with the finger-in-the-dike project."
  • Have responsibility for something really important or very unappealing. That way, people will avoid giving you anything that might distract you from your task.
  • Volunteer for Consistent action item evasion by
    some team members can lead to
    resentment, polarization, formation
    of cliques, and other symptoms
    of toxic conflict
    tasks that are especially easy for you, either because you've already completed them, or because you have pieces of them already done. People will give you credit for the full effort, but the cost to you is less than they imagine.

And here are some tactics for avoiding action items fairly.

  • Attend meetings. You usually get more action items when you aren't there.
  • Don't be the first to raise a new topic that could result in action items for others. This only invites retribution.
  • If doughnuts, coffee, or anything with sugar or caffeine is being served, abstain. Leave the sugar and caffeine for others. Let them get hyped up.
  • If you're the lead or chair, and nobody steps forward for something, rather than taking the action yourself, take the action to find someone to do it.
  • If you're the lead or chair, don't wait for meetings before asking someone to accept a task. Approaching people in advance lets you do horse-trading in private.

Watch what people do in your teams. Do they step forward eagerly? Do they shift burdens unfairly? The tactics you see others use can help you choose your own. Go to top Top  Next issue: On the Appearance of Impropriety  Next Issue

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