Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 14, Issue 32;   August 6, 2014: Impasses in Group Decision-Making: III

Impasses in Group Decision-Making: III

by

In group decision-making, impasses can develop. Some are related to the substance of the issue at hand. With some effort, we can usually resolve substantive impasses. But treating nonsubstantive impasses in the same way doesn't work. Here's why.
U.S. Congressman Jim Moran talks with constituents at a meeting on the federal budget

U.S. Congressman Jim Moran talks with constituents at a meeting on the federal budget. From October 1 to October 16, 2013, the U.S. federal government was in a state of curtailed operations, commonly called a "shutdown," in which approximately 800,000 government workers were placed on unpaid leave. The cause of the shutdown was the failure of Congress to appropriate funds for operations after funds expired at the end of September. That failure, in turn, was caused by the inability of the U.S. House of Representatives to satisfy a minority of representatives who demanded the repeal of health care legislation enacted several years earlier. In effect, the minority held approval of operations funding hostage to achieve their desired goal of repeal of the health care legislation. In the end, their attempt failed. Funding was approved, and the legislation was not repealed.

On October 1, Rep. Moran delivered a speech in the House of Representatives in which he analyzed the maneuver of the minority as a hostage-taking. He was not alone. Public debate used the hostage terminology repeatedly. Indeed, a Google search for the phrase shutdown 2013 hostage yields over 600,000 results. Identifying maneuvers such as these as hostage takings can be helpful for bringing them to an end.

Photo courtesy U.S. House of Representatives.

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 context
group 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.

We'll continue next time with more examples of nonsubstantive impasses. First in this series | Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Impasses in Group Decision-Making: IV  Next Issue

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. More info

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenNeGSpCwvtZRdcSxmner@ChaclWQulhvrNZiuGMmkoCanyon.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:

A happy babyPeek-a-Boo and Leadership
Great leaders know what to say, what not to say, and when to say or not say it, sometimes with stunning effect. Consistently effective leadership requires superior empathy skills. Here are some things to do to improve your empathy skills.
A lizardfish in a typical poseStonewalling: I
Stonewalling is a tactic of obstruction used by those who wish to stall the forward progress of some effort. Whether the effort is a rival project, an investigation, or just the work of a colleague, the stonewaller hopes to gain advantage. What can you do about stonewalling?
A ray of light passing through and reflected from a prismWhen Somebody Throws a Nutty
To "throw a nutty" — at work, that is — can include anything from extreme verbal over-reaction to violent physical abuse of others. When someone exhibits behavior at the milder end of this spectrum, what responses are appropriate?
The signing of the Paris Peace AccordsMeta-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.
President Obama meets with Congressional leadersEthical Debate at Work: II
Outcomes of debates at work sometimes favor one party, not only at the expense of the other or others, but also at the expense of the organization. Here's Part II of a set of guidelines for steering debates toward wise outcomes.

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Frederick Douglass, ca. 1879, famed abolitionist and ex-slaveComing June 20: Managing Dissent Risk
In group decision making, dissent risk is the risk that dissents about important decisions will be rejected without due consideration. As a result, group decision quality can suffer, and some groups will actually eject dissenters. How can we manage dissent risk? Available here and by RSS on June 20.
Puppies waiting intently for a shot at the treatAnd on June 27: Interrupting Others in Meetings Safely: I
In meetings we sometimes feel the need to interrupt others to offer a view or information, or to suggest adjusting the process. But such interruptions carry risk of offense. How can we interrupt others safely? Available here and by RSS on June 27.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrendpHNhIvWrSnAkjJKner@ChacxzUCydhvRdVukBPYoCanyon.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 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Race to the South Pole: The Power of Agile Development
On 14The Race to the Pole: An Application of Agile Development December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough. Lessons abound. Among the more important lessons are those that demonstrate the power of the agile approach to project management and product development. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

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.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post 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.