Jim felt the team converging on a decision — from his perspective, not a good decision. So he offered, "We're getting lots of complaints about this. I think we should fix it in this release." Beth was unmoved. "OK, customers are complaining, but they complain about everything. If we add these fixes just because of a few complaints, we'll have to add the whole B list, and we'll never ship."
Jim had been "slippery-sloped." To use the rhetorical trick called the slippery slope, you exaggerate your opponent's argument and claim that conceding your opponent's point means accepting the exaggerated form as well. You usually prevail because the exaggerated form is scary — so scary that observers rarely notice that you haven't justified the exaggerated form.
Nobody noticed that Beth hadn't justified her claim that they would have to add the entire B list. She glided over it, nobody questioned her, and Jim's proposal was rejected.
When a problem-solving team is slippery-sloped, it's misled, and it risks failing to find a solution. It mistakenly concludes that accepting one point requires that it accept that point's exaggerated form, and so it rejects the original point. What can you do to reduce your team's vulnerability to this trick?
First, educate people in advance. Don't introduce the slippery-slope concept during a slippery-slope incident. A team in the midst of heated debate doesn't want to take time out to learn rhetorical techniques. Moreover, someone will have just used the tactic, and your attempt to educate might look like a personal attack. Instead, at a meeting when no serious debate is expected, explain the slippery-slope tactic, and the damage it does. For a little humor, use examples from Meet the Press or the Congressional Record.
the exaggerated claim
is so scaryOnce everyone knows about the tactic, it's much less effective, and it's less likely to be used. If it does appear, call time out and let people know what you feel you saw. Have an open discussion, and if all agree that it really was a slippery-slope tactic, you can investigate the implicit connection between the original claim and its exaggerated form. The connection might be real, and if you all agree that it is, then you can resume the debate. Otherwise, you can go back to the unextended form and start to build on that as a solution. This works best if the person who calls time out is an observer of the debate, rather than the one who was slippery-sloped.
Once everyone understands that slippery-sloping is taboo, they'll wonder "If slippery-sloping is taboo now, won't all my sneaky tactics be taboo soon?" And of course, it's true. You'll be on the slippery slope toward treating each other with dignity and respect — not a bad slope to be on. Top Next Issue
For far more than you ever wanted to know about slippery-slope argumentation, see M.J. Rizzo, "The Camel's Nose Is in the Tent: Rules, Theories, and Slippery Slopes."
Are you fed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you or a colleague the target of a bully? Destructive conflict can ruin organizations. But if we believe that all conflict is destructive, and that we can somehow eliminate conflict, or that conflict is an enemy of productivity, then we're in conflict with Conflict itself. Read 101 Tips for Managing Conflict to learn how to make peace with conflict and make it an organizational asset. Order Now!
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More articles on Emotions at Work:
- Responding to Threats: III
- Workplace threats come in a variety of flavors. One class of threats is indirect. Threateners who use
the indirect threats aim to evoke fear of consequences brought about not by the threatener, but by other
parties. Indirect threats are indeed warnings, but not in the way you might think.
- Coping and Hard Lessons
- Ever have the feeling of "Uh-oh, I've made this mistake before"? Some of these oft-repeated
mistakes happen not because of obstinacy, or stupidity, or foolishness, but because the learning required
to avoid them is just plain difficult. Here are some examples of hard lessons.
- Handling Heat: II
- Heated exchanges in meetings can compromise both the organizational mission and the careers of the meeting's
participants. Here are some tactics for people who aren't chairing the meeting.
- Toxic Conflict in Virtual Teams: Dissociative Anonymity
- Toxic conflict in teams disrupts relationships and interferes with (or prevents) accomplishment of the
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dissociative anonymity causes toxic conflict to be both more easily triggered and more difficult to resolve.
- Changing Blaming Cultures
- Culture change in organizations is always challenging, but changing a blaming culture presents special
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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
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- And on July 4: Interrupting Others in Meetings Safely: II
- When we feel the need to interrupt someone who's speaking in a meeting, to offer a view or information, we would do well to consider (and mitigate) the risk of giving offense. Here are some techniques for interrupting the speaker in situations not addressed by the meeting's formal process. Available here and by RSS on July 4.
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- The Race to the South Pole: The Power of Agile Development
- On 14 December 1911, four men led by Roald
Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen
had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished.
As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough. Lessons abound. Among the more important
lessons are those that demonstrate the power of the agile approach to project management and product
development. Read more about this program. Here's
a date for this program:
- Ohio National Insurance, 1 Financial Way, Blue Ash, OH: July
Monthly Meeting, Cincinnati
chapter of the International Institute of Business Analysis. Register now.
- Ohio National Insurance, 1 Financial Way, Blue Ash, OH: July 17, Monthly Meeting, Cincinnati chapter of the International Institute of Business Analysis. Register now.
- 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.
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