Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 9, Issue 35;   September 2, 2009: Blind Agendas

Blind Agendas

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Effective meetings have agendas. But even if a meeting has an agenda, the hidden agendas of participants can cause trouble. Another source of trouble, less frequently recognized, is the blind agenda.
A Protestant church in Tuttlingen, Germany

A Protestant church in Tuttlingen, Germany. Art Nouveau facade of the early 20th Century. The Battle of Tuttlingen, which occurred during the Thirty Years War, was fought on November 13 or 24, 1643 (the precise date is unclear). It was a rare winter battle in a time when the military custom was to suspend operations and go to winter quarters during the cold weather. The French, under Guberiant, selected Tuttingen for their winter quarters because it was known to be "fresh" — undisturbed by foraging armies, and thus well supplied. As a precaution, he set patrols to the South to watch for signs of the opposing Bavarian army. The Bavarians, however, captured a few French patrols, and after pretending to leak to them that the Bavarians, too, were headed for winter quarters, let them escape (with their disinformation) back to the French, who assumed that the intelligence was valid. The Bavarians then attacked during a snowstorm and defeated the French in a rout. In this battle, the Bavarians exploited the French commander's blind agenda — in this case, an assumption that the Bavarian commander had the same regard for military custom as he did.

For more about this battle, see George K. Swinzow, "On Winter Warfare." Special Report 93-12, US Army Corps of Engineers Cold Regions Research & Engineering Laboratory, June 1993. Photo by Andreas Frankenhauser courtesy Wikimedia.

A common cause of meeting troubles is the hidden agenda — participants' private goals, toward which they steer the meeting at what seems to others to be every opportunity. Although both hidden and blind agendas waste time and although both can lead to toxic conflict, they're fundamentally different. The hidden agenda is known to its proponents, but unknown to others. The blind agenda is unknown to its proponents, but known to others. The two agendas lie in two different panes of the Johari Window.

This seems paradoxical: how can the proponent of a blind agenda be unaware of it? One example is a set of individual differences related to what psychologists call the need for cognitive closure, which is the need for definite knowledge about some issue, the need for clarity, or the need to make a decision on the open question.

For any given situation, different individuals can experience different perceived needs for cognitive closure. These differences can arise from differences in perceptions of the urgency of the situation, or from differences in disposition. Some people will usually feel a greater need than others do, while some people might see greater urgency in the shared situation than others do.

What is most fascinating about these individual differences is that many of us believe that our own sense of need for closure is the most appropriate. Even in small groups, we're usually unaware — or we easily forget — that the sensed need for cognitive closure is personal, and that differences are inevitable.

Whatever our level of need for cognitive closure in a given situation, we sometimes incorporate into our contributions to discussions some thoughts that are motivated mostly by our desire either for closure or for further deliberation. Usually, when we do, we don't realize that we are blind to our own agendas.

Since no Many of us believe that
our own sense of need
for closure is the
most appropriate
particular point on the spectrum of need for cognitive closure is inherently correct for all situations, a group is stronger when it finds among its members a variety of needs for cognitive closure. But when the group polarizes around the question of urgency itself, not realizing that judgments about urgency are often personal and subjective, it is on a path that leads to the swamp.

When you next find yourself in a meeting in which some want to make a decision now and others want to think more carefully, watch as the former characterize the latter as ditherers or perfectionists, while the latter characterize the former as rushing or careless. When you see this, blind agendas might be playing a role.

Individual differences in the need for cognitive closure are not the only possible blind agenda. Any individual difference can serve. The desire for elegance, adherence to convention, the need for structure, and even allowance for individual differences are good examples. What have you seen lately? Go to top Top  Next issue: The Questions Not Asked  Next Issue

101 Tips for Effective MeetingsDo you spendyour days scurrying from meeting to meeting? Do you ever wonder if all these meetings are really necessary? (They aren't) Or whether there isn't some better way to get this work done? (There is) Read 101 Tips for Effective Meetings to learn how to make meetings much more productive and less stressful — and a lot more rare. Order Now!

For more about differences and disagreements, see "Appreciate Differences," Point Lookout for March 14, 2001; "When You Think They've Made Up Their Minds," Point Lookout for May 21, 2003; "Towards More Gracious Disagreement," Point Lookout for January 9, 2008; and "Is the Question 'How?' or 'Whether?'," Point Lookout for August 31, 2011.

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See also Effective Meetings and Emotions at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Virginia SatirComing September 26: Congruent Decision-Making: I
Decision-makers who rely on incomplete or biased information are more likely to make faulty decisions. Congruent decision-making can limit the incidence of bad decisions. Available here and by RSS on September 26.
A hospital patientAnd on October 3: Congruent Decision-Making: II
Decision-makers who rely on incomplete or biased information are more likely to make decisions that don't fit the reality of their organizations. Here's Part II of a framework for making decisions that fit. Available here and by RSS on October 3.

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