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:
- Political Framing: Communications
- In organizational politics, one class of toxic tactics is framing — accusing a group or individual
by offering interpretations of their actions to knowingly and falsely make them seem responsible for
reprehensible or negligent acts. Here are some communications tactics framers use.
- Logically Illogical
- Discussions in meetings and in written media can get long and complex. When a chain of reasoning gets
long enough, we sometimes make fundamental errors of logic, especially when we're under time pressure.
Here are just a few.
- Stalking the Elephant in the Room: II
- When everyone is thinking something that no one dares discuss, we say that there is "an elephant
in the room." Free-ranging elephants are expensive and dangerous to both the organization and its
people. Here's Part II of a catalog of indicators that elephants are about.
- Handling 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.
- Toxic Conflict in Virtual Teams: Virtuality
- In virtual teams, toxic conflict sometimes seems to erupt spontaneously. People who function effectively
in co-located teams can find themselves repeatedly embroiled in conflicts that seem to lack specific
causes. What triggers toxic conflict in virtual teams?
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 11: The Rhyme-as-Reason Effect
- When we speak or write, the phrases we use have both form and meaning. Although we usually think of form and meaning as distinct, we tend to assess as more meaningful and valid those phrases that are more beautifully formed. The rhyme-as-reason effect causes us to confuse the validity of a phrase with its aesthetics. Available here and by RSS on December 11.
- And on December 18: The Trap of Beautiful Language
- As we assess the validity of others' statements, we risk making a characteristically human error — we confuse the beauty of their language with the reliability of its meaning. We're easily thrown off by alliteration, anaphora, epistrophe, and chiasmus. Available here and by RSS on December 18.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many people 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.