When groups try to reach decisions, consensus is sometimes very desirable, if not required. But even if consensus isn't actually required, disagreements can cast doubt on any proposition that is eventually adopted. In these circumstances, impasses can block all forward progress. Because failure to reach agreement — or even serious difficulty in reaching agreement — can be problematic, it's useful to know how to deal with impasses.
We can deal effectively with substantive impasses by examining the issues fairly and openly. See "Impasses in Group Decision-Making: I," Point Lookout for October 10, 2012, for a set of useful guidelines.
Nonsubstantive impasses arise not from the substance of the immediate issue, but from the dynamics of the group, its members, and its context. Because nonsubstantive impasses can arise in so many different ways, approaches to dealing with them are more varied than are the techniques for dealing with substantive impasses. Here are some examples of nonsubstantive impasses. In what follows, we'll use the term C-issues to denote the issues with respect to which the group is trying to reach consensus.
- Bargaining, extortion, and hostage taking
- Occasionally, dissenters exploit the group's need for consensus by demanding concessions on unrelated matters in exchange for their acquiescence. In effect, they hold consensus hostage.
- Progress is unlikely if the C-issues are the focus of negotiations between advocates and dissenters, because the dissenters usually are seeking unrelated concessions. Focus the discussion instead on that which motivates the dissent.
- External coercion
- Some dissenters are externally constrained to oppose the C-issues, independent of their personal views on the matter. For example, their superiors might oppose the issues, or the dissenters might believe that their superiors oppose the issues.
- In these cases, even though the dissenters engage in debate of the C-issues, such debate is pointless. The principals aren't the dissenters; the principals are those who are coercing or directing the dissenters. Carry the debate to the true principals.
- Confidential commitments
- Some members of the Nonsubstantive impasses arise not
from the substance of the issue,
but from the dynamics of the group,
its members, and its contextgroup might have made confidential commitments to each other or to other people who aren't present. Abiding by those commitments might be more or less difficult, depending on the proposal adopted by the group relative to the C-issues. Those who have made commitments therefore try to convince the group to adopt proposals that are in alignment with their confidential commitments.
- It is the confidentiality that makes this mechanism so problematic. If the commitments could be revealed, resolving the conflict might be very easy. But those who are bound by the confidential commitments typically try to conceal the existence of the commitments by fabricating arguments in favor of positions consistent with their commitments, or arguments countering positions inconsistent with their commitments. The key to resolution is a private discussion, person-to-person, in which creating a sense of safety might facilitate disclosure of the commitment.
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More articles on Conflict Management:
- Can You Hear Me Now?
- Not feeling heard can feel like an attack, even when there was no attack, and then conversation can
quickly turn to war. Here are some tips for hearing your conversation partner and for conveying the
message that you actually did hear.
- See No Evil
- When teams share information among themselves, they have their best opportunity to reach peak performance.
And when some information is withheld within an elite group, the team faces unique risks.
- Confronting the Workplace Bully: II
- When bullied, one option is to fight back, but many don't, because they fear the consequences. Confrontation
is a better choice than many believe — if you know what you're doing.
- Impasses in Group Decision-Making: II
- When groups can't reach agreement on all aspects of an issue, the tactics of some members can actually
exacerbate disagreement. Here's Part II of an exploration of impasses, emphasizing two of the more toxic
- Grace Under Fire: II
- When we debate at work, things sometimes turn unpleasant. Out of control, one party might maneuver the
other into losing control. If we have better tools for recognizing these tactics, we're better able
to maintain self-control. Here's Part II of such a toolkit.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming April 1: Incompetence: Traps and Snares
- Sometimes people judge as incompetent colleagues who are unprepared to carry out their responsibilities. Some of these "incompetents" are trapped or ensnared in incompetence, unable to acquire the ability to do their jobs. Available here and by RSS on April 1.
- And on April 8: Intentionally Misreporting Status: I
- When we report the status of the work we do, we sometimes confront the temptation to embellish the good news or soften the bad news. How can we best deal with these obstacles to reporting status with integrity? Available here and by RSS on April 8.
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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.