Divisive Debates and Virulent Victories
by Rick Brenner
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 its success.
Groups facing divisive issues risk making serious mistakes unknowingly. In group cultures accustomed to voting, formally or informally, people tend to measure the strength of alignments in terms of headcount. This perception obscures the passion people feel about the issues at hand, and it can lead us to make avoidable errors. Here are some insights about divisive issues.
- Headcount doesn't measure passion
Whatever the actual numbers on any side of a question, they don't measure the intensity of feeling of group members. That intensity can determine how well the group works together after the decision.
King Pyrrhus of Epiro, a region of northern ancient Greece. In 280 BCE, he led an invasion of southern Italy, in what would become the first engagement for the Romans with a then-modern Hellenistic armed force. In that year and the next, he won two major battles, but the cost in arms, men and elephants was so high that he is said to have remarked, "One more victory over the Romans and we are completely done for." At least he maintained his sense of irony, if not humor. These victories were the first to be called "Pyrrhic," though certainly Pyrrhic victories occurred earlier, and they would continue to accumulate throughout the history of warfare. Pyrrhic victories also occur on a daily basis in most organizations where people resolve conflicts of a somewhat less bloody kind. Photo of a piece held at Museo della Civiltà Romana (the Museum of Roman Civilization) in Rome.
- Consider how you would feel if you were one of those whose strong feelings the majority discounted. Work hard to devise a solution that excites no strong feelings of rejection on the part of any group member.
- Consider both content and consequences
- Making choices about divisive issues creates consequences for group cohesion. Focusing only on the content — the issue itself — and failing to consider the feelings of those who disagree is a risky approach.
- As a group member, include both content-related matters and the consequences for the group as you consider your choices. A legacy of bitterness and alienation can undermine the outcome you desire.
- Differing passions evolve differently
- After the decision, the passion people felt changes in different ways, depending upon whether the passion favored or opposed the decision. The passion of those who favored it is more likely to abate; the passion of those who opposed it is more likely to intensify.
- If the chosen solution excited strong contrary passions, beware their ongoing intensification. Prepare by finding ways to defuse the tension, possibly with other decisions in related areas.
- Refrain from imposing unsought advice
- Advice to As a group member, include
both content-related matters
and the consequences for the
group as you consider
your choicesthose about to prevail to "consider the consequences of narrow victory," can sound like threats or blackmail from disgruntled losers. Advice to those who opposed the decision to "put your feelings aside and move on," can feel like a fresh insult.
- The urge on the part of one party to advise the other to surrender or relent is actually an index of the poverty of wisdom in the decision itself.
Victors in divisive debates, whether decided by vote or fiat, sometimes argue, "We cannot be held hostage to threats or bitterness. We had to do what's best for the group." This argument is seductively simplistic — it addresses a nasty problem by creating an even nastier problem. The real problem — the difference in perceptions about the issue at hand — must be resolved. It cannot be resolved by alienating those who stand on the other side of the issue. That tactic weakens the group, perhaps fatally. Top Next Issue
For more about the Pyrrhic War and other events of the early development of Rome, see The Beginnings of Rome: Italy From the Bronze Age to the Punic Wars (Circa 1,000 to 264 B.C.), by Tim Cornell. Order from Amazon.com
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