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Classic Obstructionist Strategies

Thomas F. Fischer

Number 291

One of the most frustrating aspects of leadership is when individuals or groups prevent an initiative from realization. Sometimes it’s done by passivity and neglect. Other times it’s a more intentional process…especially when the self-defense and attack characterize the obstructionist agenda.

1) "Let’s Get It Over With Already!" The desire to get things over with quickly can be a strong indicator of fear. Time has a way of bringing things to light. Given enough time, everything gets discovered and revealed.

2) What Do You Have To Hide? Those who accuse others of hiding things are generally the ones who conduct the secret meetings, the undercover caucuses, and the "superficial" appearances of meetings which deal with things anything but superficial.

3) "Cover Up!" A more intense version of "What do you have to hide?" "Cover-Up"'s tend to have a greater sense of illegality and immorality about them. It also seems to imply that premeditated plotting and deceit are the real reasons the initiative has been successful. The solution, of course, is that "we must get to the bottom of this—NOW!"

4) You’re Too Partisan! This accusation, intended by the obstructionists, has at least two purposes. First, it’s to make you soften your demands and give up your control. Second, it’s designed as a means for obstructionists to publicly pronounce your bias. The more public the statement, the more the obstructionists hope that they will coerce or pressure you to give up or give in to their demands.

5) We Need Bi-Partisanship. The call for bi-partisanship is nearly always the cry of the underdog. Not having the power, votes, control or persuasion necessary to overcome the opposition, the call for bi-partisanship is a veiled threat "inviting" the winners to compromise, cave-in, and hand the reins of power to the minority.

If the majority fails to do so, or refuses to offer bi-partisanship to the degree demanded by the obstructionists, the "veiled" threat will be unveiled as obstructionists "up the ante" of disagreement.

6) It’s Unfair! This strategy, as others, is primarily a minority strategy. Since they know they don’t have the votes, the power, the influence that the majority has, they have to seek other means to get their votes. If they can’t do it through normal means or if the rules are not in their favor, they must disqualify the vote. The simplest way is the "It’s unfair!" strategy.

7) Legalistic Recourse. This strategy requires minute investigation to determine whether something has been done properly, by procedures, according to the constitution, etc. Regardless of the documentation and it’s clear-cut support of the dominant position, obstructionists will resort to any means necessary to obtain some sort of legalistic rationale for their position. Issues such as "intent," the "real meaning," and "invalid" or "illegal" procedure often are used.

8) Absent "Experts." Obstructionists will also use witnesses, experts, professionals, or other recognized authorities to support their position. Some will be "invisible" and "unnamed."

Others, of the more insistent type, may actually appear on the scene. Once there, such individuals often discover they have been used. Whether they appear or not, their "valued opinions," "what they would have done," etc. are used to obstruct and confuse the dominant position.

When the positions stated by the "Absent Expert" are presented, often they must be investigated to avoid further attacks. Such delays in implementation is a major benefit of this strategy.

9) Positional ‘Flip-Flop.’ Obstructionist will often cry, "You’re going to fast" or complain about the "lack of openness" of various processes and proceedings. When these concerns are addressed and the process slowed-down and made open, they often protest too much being made known and that much of what is known is irrelevant. Such "flip-flops" are clear indicators that the presented issues are not the real issues. There is another agenda at work.

10) Double-Speak: Saying one thing while doing another is a classic, frustrating strategy. Those using it will, to guard their obstructive use of it, point to the leaders' alleged repeated usage of "misleading information," "lying," etc.

11) Scapegoating. In order to divert energy, attention, and support away from progress, obstructionists must have a scapegoat. Leaders are especially prone to scapegoating since anxiety always works its way up the hierarchy. The higher it goes, the more focused and intense the anxiety can become.

Accusations of others having "hidden" agendas are a type of verbal "tarring and feathering" of those most able to accomplish the given initiative. When such leaders are scapegoated, the desired obstructionist response is that the leader demonstrate a display of cracked character.

Reactivity, defensiveness, targeting enemies and a general overall pre-occupation with the conflict all help to obstruct the given initiative and derail the leader’s energy and character.

12) Victimization. Since change always entails anxiety, obstructionists usually do not have any trouble finding anxious individuals who crave attention. Such individuals may not necessarily oppose the initiative. Indeed, they may be totally unaware they are being used as "poster children" by obstructionists. Desperate to show "they care" (and the leadership doesn't), obstructionism can effectively bring others into their "caring" alliance.

13) "Violation of Rights." Those who take the claim that their "rights" are violated are often the most culpable to having violated others. Rooted in hypocrisy, obstructionists will use this appeal to "empathy" to prove they care. All the while, other leaders will be mystified at their outright--but unnoticed--hypocrisy.

Those demanding their "rights" will often use the most public and damaging process possible to draw attention to their temper-tantrums. Once given what they demand, they often take more than what was given and trample on other's rights!

Some examples of this might be when they demand and are given the right of equal access, they will deny free access of others to them. They may demand the right to be heard, but will interrupt, object, protest and even destroy those in the opposition wishing to exercise the same right. once given often they will not exercise the right.

14) Demonization: Nothing draws people toward a common cause like confronting "evil." This is especially true in Christian settings when conflict is at elevated levels. Demonization energizes such high reactivity that rational processes can be more easily subverted and disregarded.

Demonization has added benefits for obstructionists by diverting attention away from the real issue at hand and changing the focus to an individual or group. This drains energy away from appropriate consideration and deliberation of the real issues at hand while also undermining the integrity of those desiring the proposed change..

15) Re-Focus Expected Timetables. "When will this all be over?" Obstructionists know that  anxiety can be escalated if they can corrupt expected timetables. People have limited capacities for patience. When time-tables, expected dates of completion, etc are changed, obstructed or forced to be continually re-written, obstructionists gain momentum.

Anxiety rises in those getting increasingly wary and voice their complaints. "When will this all be over?" As energy becomes drained and diverted into other directions, fatigue is soon to follow. This fatigue often drains the energy needed for accomplishment of the proposed agenda.

If obstructionists can drain energies well enough, they can modify the proposed timetable of implementation and thereby obstruct the change. If shortening the process is not in their favor, they will do everything possible to prolong the process so that it lingers beyond any reasonable time frame. Onlookers, beleaguered by the length of time needed, will become disinterested. The proposed process will be stalled, thwarted, and in extremely successful instances, blamed on the leadership.

16) Red-Herring Diversions: Red-Herring diversions are some of the most effective ways to subvert agendas, control timetables, demonize, and otherwise proliferate obstructionist strategies. "Red-Herring Diversions" can be any type of action which diverts attention from the issues. A short listing of such diversions may include focusing on minutiae, subverting the agenda, not showing up, denying responsibility, demonization, uncontrolled meetings, continually permitting loose cannons to lengthen meetings, etc.

17) Focusing on Character: This finger pointing strategy is used by obstructionists to divert attention away from their wrongs by unfairly attacking or raising questions about the character of the opposition. Such items are characteristically framed as "serious" or "gravely serious." Generally the items cannot be proven but are founded entirely on hearsay.

Even those which can be proven "beyond reasonable doubt" will not convince the obstructionists because the the character assassination is merely a tool to obstruct the leader's agenda.  They raise doubt of the integrity of the leadership. They leave followers wondering, "Is there something wrong that I don't know about?" "What are the leaders hiding?"

18) Focusing on Procedure: Perhaps the best argument for retaining Robert's Rules of Order is also the best argument for discarding it. In developing legalistic procedural guidelines it becomes a nearly-impossible-to-silence obstructionist strategy. "They didn't do it right!" or "They didn't follow proper procedure" are just some of the types of accusations which the Rules of Order can inspire.

Many pastors and leaders have been "surprised" by procedural items brought up by those who would obstruct progress. When leaders use Robert's Rules of Order to counter these measures, the resulting counter-measures tend to reinforce and escalate further false characterizations proliferated by the obstructionists. "Unfair," "Heavy-handed," "Dictator," "Using the rules for their own advantage" are but a sampling of the wide range of possible attributions.

19) Re-Focus Energies To The "More Important" Immediate Necessities.

"What about the problematic ‘now’?" The most sure-fire way to obstruct progress is to change the focus from the future long-term good to the present short-term, needing-immediate-gratification present. The present is never as good as the future. The vision is always greater than the realized present.

"Doing such and such will divert us from the things we really need to do." "We must take care of this…" or "We haven’t even done such-and-such yet?" and other such mantras are just some of the obvious-beyond-a-doubt indicators of obstructionistic agenda. Taking care of the "urgent" present nearly always exacts a price. The price paid is the realization of a vision-directed preferred future.

20) Fire The Leader. This is one of the most powerful obstructionist tools. Take the motor out of the automobile and it will stop cold. In Christian Churches all too often this takes the form of removing the pastor. Often these pastoral attacks leveled are unfairly forged, slanderously propagated, libelously proliferated, and unscrupulously presented and repeated.

Given the anxiety generated by the obstructionists and the increasing anxieties of the progressives who are frustrated in their desire to boldly move forward, the anxiety demands a focus of relief. Congregations which have found that removal of prior pastors have given such relief will tend to repeat the pattern. Unfortunately, they will also repeat the experience of having the anxiety relief being short-lived.

21) Insist On Following Tradition. The purpose of this diversion is to subvert present leadership with the decisions and practices of past leadership. The added benefit, of course, is that tradition can also be reinterpreted in a way most favorable to the obstructionist. Arguments regarding "original intent," motivations, results and comparing the past "successes" to present-day problems also helps obstructionist develop their case.

A final added benefit is that tradition diverts attention away from reality to fantasy. "Weren't those the good ole' days" and other such expressions flatly deny the conflict, the disagreement, the difficulties and the necessity for mediated compromises which allowed for the initial approval and implementation of the tradition in the first place.

22) Just Don't Do It. The simplest of all obstructionists strategies, those implement this strategy simply obstruct progress by being lazy, lethargic, and unhelpful. In it's passive form it appears as apathy. In it's active form it may appear as a type of dare. "Let's watch and see if they can pull this off. I bet they can't. I dare them!" When these two forms are combined the result is a classic passive-aggressive strategy. "I don't want it so let's just not support it. Then let's see if they can pull it off without us!"

What Can You Do?
 
1) Head The Opposition Off At The Pass. Anticipation reduces precipitation. Knowing and understanding the opposition and motivations for their obstructionistic ways can reduce the amount of precipitation. It can also save a lot of untold, unwanted, and unnecessary pain.
 
2) Give The Opposition A Fair, Open, Public Voice. Don't be afraid they'll say "no." They will. Just remember that nothing obstructs more than refusing others a voice--even a negative voice. By doing so, one becomes their own obstructionist and begins a process of self-sabotage.
 
3) Abolish Legalistic Structures. If rules are made to be broken, then the only time that they will be broken are in the situations in which the rules are most clearly designed to apply.
 
4) Know Your Support. More often than not, it's not how right you are that counts. It's the number of individuals who believe you are right. Supportive relationships are essential. Though no one can guarantee who will be supportive in those difficult votes, continually striving to build and maintain strong relationships with individuals of all stripes, persuasions and motivations is always helpful.
 
5) Cultivate Support Before The Crisis. When the crisis occurs it may be too late to garner extra support. It may look "self-serving," "manipulative," or "phony" to others. Leaders are especially vulnerable to such characterizations--true or untrue--when obstructionists are aggressively mustering support through up-front and under-handed techniques.
 
6) Avoid The Biblical "Cry Wolf." Not everything is a doctrinal issue, even in the church. Too many individuals are prone to react with Biblical authority to every wrong that arises. Far too often, such Biblical appeals are used inappropriately or reactively to "shut down" the opposition. Such reactivity is simply immature and ineffective.
 
Some Christian leaders continually "Cry Wolf" with biblical quotations or quotations from other Christian doctrines. More often than not it seems their "Crying Wolf" can be a greater obstruction of Biblical intent than that fostered by the opposition. By crying wolf, such leaders defy clear Biblical directives of the purpose of Scripture.
 
The Bible is not to be used for judgmental finger pointing no matter how tempting it might be. Nor is it to uphold some sort of self-styled self-righteousness. Instead, as St. Paul said, it is to be used for "doctrine, correction, rebuke, and instruction of righteousness" (II Timothy 3:15-17). Most importantly, it is to be used to win back the erring brother or sister...even if it means they must be forgiven "seventy time seven times" (Matthew 18).
 
Leaders must avoid the temptation to "cry wolf" when obstructionist strategies are gaining--or have achieved significant momentum.  Too often by the time leaders feel they must "cry wolf," the obstructionists have already won. By crying wolf--and crying too late--such appeals can actually have many destructive effects. They can sharpen division, increase anxiety, arouse increased opposition, and impede healthy reconciliation processes. They can also signal desperation and thereby, undermine trust in the anxious, defeated leadership.
 
7) Be Non-Anxious. One of the greatest tools of obstructionists is there ability to generate emotive responses on a broad scale. When anxious emotions are operative and dominant, the last thing needed is for the leader to add more anxiety to it. Efforts to coerce peace through moralization, threats, incentives, biblical mandates, calls to "love one another" are nearly always ineffective in high level conflict.
 
The best strategy is to use a "double-dose" of the fruits of the Spirit. Of these, patience can be one of the most effective tools. If every action results in an equal and opposite reaction, resist "slapping the other cheek" and, instead, infuse the system with patience, kindness, self-control and other biblical anxiety-reducing postures.
 
8) Don't Take It So Personally. Obstructionists may or may not be "out to get you." The truth is that they can't...unless you give them a footing in your heart, soul and/or mind. Many times obstructionists are working in ways that hinder the work of the Kingdom. So it really isn't you they are opposing. They are opposing anyone that God would place in your position of leadership.
 
9) You Don't Always Have To Win. Winning football teams often have more plays on which they loose yardage than they gain. Championship basketball teams can win on as few as thirty percent field goal percentages. There isn't any victory in life which doesn't come at the price of losing battles, sometimes multiple battles. But it's not the number of battles that you win or lose. It's whether you win the war.
 
Defy the opposition's efforts to discourage. Keep your eye and the eyes of onlookers on the big picture. Recognize that there will be setbacks. But keep focused on the process of victory. It can succeed. It will succeed. Give it time, patience, focused-energy and, if necessary, re-group toward the goal.
 
10) Be Gracious In Defeat. No, you won't win all the time. Greatness of leadership character is not merely seen in victory. It's also seen in defeat. It's easy to appear "Christian" when you win. It's not so easy when you lose.
 
Defeat is God's invitation to reflect, repent, regroup, and refocus, and re-energize yourself, your faith, your vision, and your people to God's purpose. Learning gracious humility in defeat is one of God's greatest ways to shape the character of His leaders and prepare them for greater opportunities for Kingdom victory.
 
11) Recognize That Sometimes The Obstructionists Are Right! Not many have had a "direct line" to know and recognize God's will. Even the best-intentioned strategies for renewal may not be the best thing for a congregation at a given time. They may not be God's will either.
 
God can work through the delays and defeats caused by obstructionists. When He does, He also forces leaders to "go back to the drawing board" to re-examine God's will. When done in the wisdom and humility of God's will, and based on His Word, often the re-developed strategy may be better than the initial one desired.
 
The Common Denominator
 
One interesting thing that many obstructionistic strategies share is their appeal to fear and anxiety--yours and theirs! Regardless of the strategy, it is really not the strategy per se that is so effective but the fear and anxiety which it generates in the system. A general rule of thumb is that anything which energizes the fear increases obstructionism's effectiveness.
 
What this means for leaders is simply that organizations are, by nature, anxious. They are composed of anxious individuals. The task of the leader is to provide such emotive energies which out-weigh the anxiety-level. This is done by inciting "positive" anxieties which help people cope with "negative" anxieties.
 
Instead of letting individuals dwell in their anxieties of being out of control, unable to grow, afraid of change, leaders must overcome such negative anxieties with positive anxieties directed toward positive change, growth, and the fulfillment of something outside themselves.
 
The greatest mission outside oneself, of course, is God's mission. That is why Christian leaders have the highest calling, and sometimes, the greatest difficulties. Teaching and leading God's people to remove their anxiety-drive obstructionism and placing themselves into the will of a loving and gracious God in the most vulnerable, trusting way, is one of the hallmarks of Christian leadership. The means for this teaching and leading, of course, is simply and exclusively the Word of God.
 
Trust God's Purpose
 
Spiritual leaders need to understand that ultimately they are not in control. God is. Effective Christian leaders often share how "success" was a "surprise" to them. In the quiet, dark corners of their churches, they may often admit how their greatest, most energetically-orchestrated efforts failed.
 
Too often Christian leaders fail to see God's purpose in ministry initiatives. When pastors and leaders become too single-minded on their purpose, they can so easily loose sight of God's deeper purpose for them and His Church.
 
That God uses obstructionists for His purposes was the point of Peter's Pentecost sermon in Acts two. His proclamation that God used the obstructionists--the unbelieving--to have Jesus crucified and thereby affect our salvation is perhaps the most vivid example of God's using obstructionists. The greatest lesson, however, is this. God, through Peter, offered His unlimited invitation to grace even to those who crucified Jesus.
 
Let God Have His Way!
 
Whether through success or failure, God has His own ways of teaching us more important things we never expected. God also teaches His purposes through our encounters with obstructionists. When we oppose this special working of God in our ministries, we become the obstructionists!
 
Keep the faith, stay the course, and recognize that regardless how strong the support--or how great the obstructionism--God's purpose will occur through you and them. You are God's tool. You are His instrument. Be useful to God for whatever His purpose for you might be... with or without the obstructionists.
 
Whatever the obstruction, don't loose faith. Just do it!
Thomas F. Fischer

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This page was revised on: Tuesday, October 05, 2004 11:02:10 PM