Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 12, Issue 41;   October 10, 2012: Impasses in Group Decision Making: I

Impasses in Group Decision Making: I

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Groups sometimes find that although they cannot agree on the issue at hand in its entirety, they can agree on some parts of it. Yet, they remain stuck, unable to reach a narrow agreement before moving on to the more thorny areas. Why does this happen?
John C. Calhoun (1782-1850), seventh Vice President of the United States

John C. Calhoun (1782-1850), seventh Vice President of the United States. After being elected as a Senator from South Carolina, he resigned his position as Vice President, the first to do so. Following the War of 1812, Congress enacted tariffs on imports that adversely affected Calhoun's home state of South Carolina. He joined and later led calls for a constitutional theory that was called nullification. According to this theory, any state could nullify any Federal law within its borders. The demands for a right of nullification were eventually quelled by, among other things, a revision in the tariffs that made them much less onerous. Nullification was eventually rejected by the states following a decade or so of turbulent debate.

In the workplace, the analog of nullification is the idea that any member of a decision-making group could choose to reject any decision of the group. Clearly, groups that accept this idea are in effect choosing to disband, because they will quickly lose cohesion. It is for this reason that groups must find a way to encourage all members to accept group decisions. Because using force, or threat of ejection, to compel acceptance of controversial decisions is inimical to sustained group cohesion, groups must find ways to gain support of shared decisions, even when obstacles arise.

The painting is in oil on canvas, painted in 1834 by Rembrandt Peale. It is currently at the Gibbes Museum. Photo available at The Athenaeum.

When groups confront controversial decisions, differences can sometimes create fractures that make consensus decisions difficult. Typically, even when there is agreement on some factors, groups have difficulty adopting the narrow parts of the issue about which there is agreement. What follows is an exploration of some reasons for this difficulty, with suggestions for dealing with it. We'll use the term C-Issues to denote those issues about which there is Consensus, and D-Issues to denote those issues about which there is Disagreement.

In this Part I, we focus on what moves opinion minorities — those who withhold agreement on D-Issues and who are in the minority.

Acknowledge concerns of opinion minorities
In group discussions, members of opinion minorities — the dissenters — sometimes feel isolated and weak. Holders of minority opinions about D-Issues sometimes feel that if they give their consent to the C-Issues, the majority will have gained what it wanted without having given anything in return. In their own eyes, then, the members of an opinion minority can appear weak, and in some cases, foolish.
The group can address this problem by taking into account some of the important concerns of the opinion minority. For example, they can adjust the framing of some of the D-Issues. If the group then adopts the new framing, even without reaching a decision on the reframed issues, the opinion minority might be moved to agree to some part of the C-Issues. The goal is to take an action that acknowledges in a material way the viewpoint of the opinion minority, so that they feel heard and so that they are, in fact, heard. Think broadly — what is changed can be anything that alleviates the minority's feelings of weakness or isolation. It need not be related to the issue at hand.
Ban pressuring members of opinion minorities
If the group has faced similar situations in the past, its past behavior can be a contributing cause of the current impasse. For instance, suppose that in the past, after reaching agreement on the C-Issues, group members pressured other group members with respect to the D-Issues. As a consequence, some group members might be withholding consent on C-Issues in the present instance as a tactic for avoiding being pressured with respect to the D-Issues.
That is, Take an action that acknowledges
in a material way the viewpoint
of the opinion minority
the source of the impasse might not be the questions under discussion. Rather, the source might be past pressuring behavior. If so, the group cannot resolve hurt feelings and bitterness from those past events through discussion of the current questions. Instead, it must address that past behavior directly, returning to the issue at hand only after reaching agreement that pressure tactics are unacceptable.

Next time, we'll examine some of the tactics that appear when some members withhold their agreement.  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Impasses in Group Decision Making: II  Next Issue

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