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

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? rbrenogMhuqCxAnbfLvzbner@ChacigAthhhYwzZDgxshoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

This article in its entirety was written by a 
          human being. No machine intelligence was involved in any way.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.

This article in its entirety was written by a human being. No machine intelligence was involved in any way.

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:

A political cartoon from the 1840 U.S. Presidential campaignHow to Create Distrust
A trusting environment is critical to high performance. That's why it's important to recognize behaviors that erode trust in others. Here's a little catalog of methods people use — intentionally or not — to create distrust.
Young chickensToxic Conflict in Virtual Teams: Dissociative Anonymity
Toxic conflict in teams disrupts relationships and interferes with (or prevents) accomplishment of the team's goals. It's difficult enough to manage toxic conflict in co-located teams, but in virtual teams, dissociative anonymity causes toxic conflict to be both more easily triggered and more difficult to resolve.
A dense Lodgepole Pine stand in Yellowstone National Park in the United StatesAgenda Despots: I
Many of us abhor meetings. Words like boring, silly, and waste come to mind. But for some meeting chairs, meetings aren't boring at all, because they fear losing control of the agenda. To maintain control, they use the techniques of the Agenda Despots.
Two hermit crabs in their snail shellsThe Perils of Limited Agreement
When a group member agrees to a proposal, even with conditions, the group can move forward. Such agreement is constructive, but there are risks. What are those risks and what can we do about them?
U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt signs the Social Security Act, 13 August 1935Bad Trouble: Coping strategies
When Bad Trouble develops at work people make choices about coping. If they cope constructively, they have choices about how to do that. Even those who don't cope constructively have choices. Here's a survey of the wide range of choices people make.

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Lifeboats on board the FS Scandinavia, May 2006Coming December 13: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: I
To take the risks that learning and practicing new ways require, we all need a sense that trial-and-error approaches are safe. Organizations seeking to improve processes would do well to begin by assessing their level of psychological safety. Available here and by RSS on December 13.
A beekeeper at work, wearing safety equipmentAnd on December 20: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: II
When we begin using new tools or processes, we make mistakes. Practice is the cure, but practice can be scary if the grace period for early mistakes is too short. For teams adopting new methods, psychological safety is a fundamental component of success. Available here and by RSS on December 20.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenogMhuqCxAnbfLvzbner@ChacigAthhhYwzZDgxshoCanyon.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

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.