Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 12, Issue 41;   October 10, 2012:

Impasses in Group Decision Making: I

by

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

101 Tips for Managing Conflict 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!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenEMudcCzvnDHFfOEmner@ChacTcmtXTCJBjZfSFjIoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Conflict Management:

Conflict Haiku
When tempers flare, or tension fills the air, many of us contribute to the stew, often without realizing that we do. Here are some haiku that describe some of the many stances we choose that can lead groups into tangles, or let those tangles persist once they form.
Acrobatics requires trustThe High Cost of Low Trust: I
We usually think of Trust as one of those soft qualities that we would all like our organizational cultures to have. Yet, truly paying attention to Trust at work is rare, in part, because we don't fully appreciate what distrust really costs. Here are some of the ways we pay for low trust.
Polonius's Charge to Laertes, color wood engraving by Bernard Brussel-Smith (1914-1989)A Critique of Criticism: I
Whether we call it "criticism" or "feedback," the receiver can sometimes experience pain, even when the giver didn't intend harm. How does this happen? What can givers of feedback do to increase the chance that the receiver hears the giver's message without experiencing pain?
Deepwater Horizon oil spill imagined in true color on May 17, 2010, by the MODIS instrument aboard NASA's TERRA satelliteHandling 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.
Bull moose sparring in Grand Teton National ParkDisagreements in Virtual Meetings
Disagreements about substance can sometimes become unpleasant. And it seems that the likelihood of this happening is greater in virtual meetings. Six tactics can help keep things calm enough for groups to work better together.

See also Conflict Management and Workplace Politics for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A micrometer capable of measuring to |plusmn .01 mmComing July 13: What Do We Actually Know?
Precision in both writing and speech can be critical in determining the success of collaborations in the modern workplace. Precision is especially important when we distinguish between what we surmise or assume and what we actually know. Available here and by RSS on July 13.
A mallet. The same object can be either a tool or a weaponAnd on July 20: Overt Verbal Abuse at Work
Verbal abuse in the workplace involves using written or spoken language to disparage, to disadvantage, or to otherwise harm others. Perpetrators tend to favor tactics that they can subsequently deny having used to harm anyone. Available here and by RSS on July 20.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenEMudcCzvnDHFfOEmner@ChacTcmtXTCJBjZfSFjIoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500-1000 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power

Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople 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.

Bullet Points: Mastery or Madness?

DecisBullet Point Madnession makers in modern organizations commonly demand briefings in the form of bullet points or a series of series of bullet points. But this form of presentation has limited value for complex decisions. We need something more. We actually need to think. Briefers who combine the bullet-point format with a variety of persuasion techniques can mislead decision makers, guiding them into making poor decisions. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.