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:
- Assumptions and the Johari Window: I
- The roots of both creative and destructive conflict can often be traced to differing assumptions of
the parties to the conflict. Working out these differences is a lot easier when we know what everyone's
- Divisive Debates and Virulent Victories
- When groups decide divisive issues, harmful effects can linger for weeks, months, or forever. Although
those who prevail might be ready to "move on," others might feel so alienated that they experience
even daily routine as fresh insult and disparagement. How a group handles divisive issues can determine
- New Ideas: Experimentation
- In collaborative problem solving, teams sometimes perform experiments to help choose a solution. These
experiments sometimes lead to trouble. What are the troubles and how can we avoid them?
- Social Isolation and Workplace Bullying
- Social isolation is a tactic widely used by workplace bullies. What is it? How do bullies use it? Why
do bullies use it? What can targets do about it?
- They Just Don't Understand
- When we cannot resolve an issue in open debate, we sometimes try to explain the obstinacy of others.
The explanations we favor can tell us more about ourselves than they do about others.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming July 25: Exploiting Functional Fixedness: II
- A cognitive bias called functional fixedness causes difficulty in recognizing new uses for familiar things. It also makes for difficulty in recognizing devious uses of everyday behaviors. Here's Part II of a catalog of deviousness based on functional fixedness. Available here and by RSS on July 25.
- And on August 1: Strategies of Verbal Abusers
- Verbal abuse at work has special properties, because it takes place in an environment in which verbal abuse is supposedly proscribed. Yet verbal abuse does happen at work. Here are three strategies abusers rely on to avoid disciplinary action. Available here and by RSS on August 1.
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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.