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 precedentsJeff 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.
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More articles on Workplace Politics:
- Workplace Politics Is Not a Game
- We often think about "playing the game" — either with relish or repugnance. Whatever
your level of skill or interest, you'll do better if you see workplace politics as it is. It is not a game.
- Stonewalling: II
- Stonewalling is a tactic of obstruction. Some less sophisticated tactics rely on misrepresentation to
gum up the works. Those that employ bureaucratic methods are more devious. What can you do about stonewalling?
- Pariah Professions: I
- In some organizations entire professions are held in low regard. Their members become pariahs to some
people in the rest of the organization. When these conditions prevail, organizational performance suffers.
- Projection Deception
- Practitioners of the dark side of workplace politics are skilled in the art of deception. One technique
involves exploiting psychological projection on the part of the person deceived.
- More Things I've Learned Along the Way: VI
- When I gain an important insight, or when I learn a lesson, I make a note. Example: If you're interested
in changing how a social construct operates, knowing how it came to be the way it is can be much less
useful than knowing what keeps it the way it is.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 13: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: I
- To take the risks that learning and practicing new ways require, we all need a sense that trial-and-error approaches are safe. Organizations seeking to improve processes would do well to begin by assessing their level of psychological safety. Available here and by RSS on December 13.
- And on December 20: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: II
- When we begin using new tools or processes, we make mistakes. Practice is the cure, but practice can be scary if the grace period for early mistakes is too short. For teams adopting new methods, psychological safety is a fundamental component of success. Available here and by RSS on December 20.
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Beware any resource that speaks of "winning" at workplace politics or "defeating" it. You can benefit or not, but there is no score-keeping, and it isn't a game.