Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 15, Issue 23;   June 10, 2015: The Perils of Limited Agreement

The Perils of Limited Agreement

by

When a group member agrees to a proposal, even with conditions, the group can move forward. Such agreement is constructive, but there are risks. What are those risks and what can we do about them?
Two hermit crabs in their snail shells

Two hermit crabs, current residents of abandoned shells of marine snails. Technically, the snail shells aren't abandoned. The snails died. Hermit crabs take up residence though, and as they grow, they occasionally must relocate to slightly larger shells. In so doing, they sometimes engage in "negotiations" with the current occupants of shells they deem more suitable. Research indicates that these interactions, which look more like battles than negotiations, can sometimes be properly regarded as negotiations, between an "initiator" crab (formerly regarded as the aggressor), and a noninitiator. Careful study indicates the length of the interaction is correlated not with the goodness of fit of the noninitiator's shell to the body of the initiator, but instead with the goodness of fit of the initiator's shell to the body of the noninitiator. In other words, if the noninitiator is satisfied with a swap, the interaction is brief.

Human negotiations often follow a similar pattern. We call such negotiations "win-win." For more information about hermit crab negotiations, see Brian A. Hazlett, "Interspecific negotiations: Mutual gain in exchanges of a limiting resource," in Animal Behaviour, vol. 31, Issue 1, February 1983, pages 160-163. Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Trying to reach a joint decision, a group might find that some of its members are willing to agree to the proposal at hand, but only with conditions. Trouble can arise when this happens, both for the majority and the minority. The trouble can persist beyond the present discussion, preventing the group from reaching agreements on other matters for some time to come.

How can that happen? And what can we do to avoid it?

Let's suppose that for several weeks, Jeff has been objecting to Jessica's proposal. At one meeting, he announces that he now accepts her solution, "in this case." Jeff is expressing his limited agreement. Without saying so explicitly, Jeff's position is that "Jessica's solution will work in this case, but I don't think (or I don't know that) it will work in every case" or possibly "in any other case."

Jeff is indeed helping the group resolve the present issue by finding common ground that can serve as a foundation for further progress. But while he is expressing agreement, it is not without risk. Here are some of those risks.

Genuine reservations
Jeff might not have in mind specific objections to general use of Jessica's approach, but he's reserving his right to object to future applications. The disagreement he just resolved can therefore arise again someday.
Future agreements can be severely threatened if the majority chooses to use Jeff's limited agreement as a precedent. If that happens, Jeff (or any other dissenter) is less likely to offer limited agreement to resolve future disagreements for fear of setting precedents. As a member of the majority, avoid exploiting as precedents any limited agreements by dissenters.
Distrust and resentment
Distrusting Jeff's limited agreement, some of the majority might wonder about its boundaries. They might question him about those boundaries, even though Jeff has clearly accepted Jessica's approach for the present issue.
If that happens, Future agreements can be severely
threatened if the majority chooses
to use limited agreements as precedents
Jeff might feel attacked. He has just made a significant contribution to group harmony, and he's being rewarded with an inquisition. Resentments can flourish. If a limited agreement clearly covers the present issue, that's sufficient. Let future issues define its true boundaries.
Limited agreement proliferation
In groups that haven't often experienced limited agreement, some members might notice the advantages it affords the consenter. It gives the consenter room to withhold consent on future matters, even if the consenter has no substantive objections in the present instance. Limited agreement can create political capital, because agreement withheld can be useful in future bargaining. More precisely, giving unconditional agreement can surrender political capital unnecessarily.
This realization can entice other group members to liberally employ limited agreement in future debates, which can create difficulties for the group as it tries to forge agreements on even the most straightforward proposals.

Although limited agreement has risks, it's useful for breaking deadlocks. Accept the risks — judiciously. Go to top Top  Next issue: Why Sidebars Happen  Next Issue

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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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