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
Are you fed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you or a colleague the target of a bully? Destructive conflict can ruin organizations. But if we believe that all conflict is destructive, and that we can somehow eliminate conflict, or that conflict is an enemy of productivity, then we're in conflict with Conflict itself. Read 101 Tips for Managing Conflict to learn how to make peace with conflict and make it an organizational asset. Order Now!
Your comments are welcome
Would you like to see your comments posted here? Send 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.
More articles on Conflict Management
- The Uses of Empathy
- Even though empathy skills are somewhat undervalued in the workplace context, we do use them, for good and for ill. What is empathy? How is it relevant at work?
- Untangling Tangled Threads
- In energetic discussions, topics and subtopics get intertwined. The tangles can be frustrating. Here's a collection of techniques for minimizing tangles in complex discussions.
- How Targets of Bullies Can Use OODA: Part I
- Most targets of bullies just want the bullying to stop, but most bullies don't stop unless they fear for their own welfare if they continue the bullying. To end the bullying, targets must turn the tables.
- 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?
- When Over-Delivering Makes Trouble
- When responding to inquiries such as "Is that correct?" we sometimes err by giving too many reasons why it's incorrect. Patterns of over-delivery can lead to serious trouble. Here's how.
See also Conflict Management and Effective Meetings for more related articles.
I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates.
Contact Rick for details at rbrenner@ChacoCanyon.com
or (617) 491-6289, 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
- The Politics of Meetings for People Who Hate Politics
- There's a lot more to running an effective meeting than having the right room, the right equipment, and the right people. With meetings, the whole really is more than the sum of its parts. How the parts interact with each other and with external elements is as important as the parts themselves. And those interactions are the essence of politics for meetings. This program explores techniques for leading meetings that are based on understanding political interactions, and using that knowledge effectively to meet organizational goals. Read more about this program. Here are some upcoming dates for this program:
- Managing Virtual Meetings for Real Results
- Leading or participating in virtual meetings — teleconferences, Web conferences, video conferences, and more — is challenging. Miscommunications, misunderstandings, distractions, politics, and interpersonal conflict all thrive in the typical environment of the virtual team. We'll inventory the challenges virtual meeting leaders and participants face, and provide tools for anticipating and addressing them. The focus of this program is practical — attendees will learn concrete techniques for preventing and dealing with the problems that arise in virtual meetings. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:
- The Race to the South Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers
- On 14 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, but to project managers, the story is fascinating. Lessons abound. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program: