When two or more parties work out their differences, they often employ explicit agreements. Written or oral, signed or unsigned, agreements spell out what will be exchanged and when, or what the parties will refrain from doing. Agreements are essential to collaborative work in the context of constrained resources.
When agreements collapse spontaneously, there is no apparent external cause. Even when external conditions remain unchanged, agreements can implode. Distrust and rancor can follow, jeopardizing the possibility of future agreements. Because the long-term consequences of collapse can be more severe, unpleasant, and debilitating than the collapse itself, skill in crafting stable agreements is a valuable asset.
Here are some of the attributes of stable agreements.
- They're voluntary
- Stable agreements are voluntary. Neither party is coerced by the other, or by any other party. For example, the supervisor who addresses toxic conflict between subordinates by ordering them to "work it out or else" is establishing conditions for an unstable agreement.
- If coercion drives the bargain, the agreement can remain stable only as long as the coercion remains effective.
- Information quality is symmetric
- Both parties have equal access to information about the context of the agreement and the value of the items exchanged. That is, one party estimates the fairness of the agreement about as accurately as the other. Information quality asymmetry is especially troublesome when the advantaged party knows that the disadvantaged party is agreeing to an unfair exchange, or when the advantaged party intentionally misleads the disadvantaged party.
- When the truth finally becomes apparent, the disadvantaged party often feels harmed. Relationships degrade. The agreement collapses.
- There are incentives for preserving the confidentiality of confidential terms
- When agreements have If coercion drives the bargain,
the agreement can remain
stable only as long as the
coercion remains effectiveconfidential components, stability requires that there be incentives for maintaining that confidentiality. For example, when an agreement must remain confidential for delicate policy reasons, a trap awaits: the first party to disclose the agreement can sometimes shift responsibility for the need for delicacy onto the other party, even after harvesting value from the agreement.
- When agreements are confidential, they must address the problem of incentives for first disclosure.
- Value exchange is contemporaneous
- Perhaps the most important stabilizer of agreements is simultaneity of exchange. If one party harvests value from the agreement before the other, or faster than the other, then the earlier harvester has an incentive to renege after having harvested enough value. Such an agreement becomes a form of "I'll scratch your back; you stab me in mine."
- Working out contemporaneous exchanges can be difficult, sometimes requiring streams of small bits. Finding workable decompositions can require some cleverness.
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More articles on Conflict Management:
- Workplace Bullying and Workplace Conflict: II
- Of the tools we use to address toxic conflict, many are ineffective for ending bullying. Here's a review
of some of the tools that don't work well and why.
- Preventing Toxic Conflict: I
- Conflict resolution skills are certainly useful. Even more advantageous are toxic conflict prevention
skills, and skills that keep constructive conflict from turning toxic.
- Meta-Debate at Work
- Workplace discussions sometimes take the form of informal debate, in which parties who initially have
different perspectives try to arrive at a shared perspective. Meta-debate is one way things can go wrong.
- Historical Debates at Work
- One obstacle to high performance in teams is the historical debate — arguing about who said what
and when, or who agreed to what and when. Here are suggestions for ending and preventing historical debates.
- Linear Thinking Bias
- When assessing the validity of problem solutions, we regard them as more valid if their discovery stories
are logical, than we would if they're other than logical. This can lead to erroneous assessments, because
the discovery story is not the solution.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming October 5: Downscoping Under Pressure: I
- When projects overrun their budgets and/or schedules, we sometimes "downscope" to save time and money. The tactic can succeed — and fail. Three common anti-patterns involve politics, the sunk cost effect, and cognitive biases that distort estimates. Available here and by RSS on October 5.
- And on October 12: Downscoping Under Pressure: II
- We sometimes "downscope" projects to bring them back on budget and schedule when they're headed for overruns. Downscoping doesn't always work. Cognitive biases like the sunk cost effect and confirmation bias can distort decisions about how to downscope. Available here and by RSS on October 12.
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