Impasses in Group Decision-Making:
by Rick Brenner
Groups sometimes find that although they cannot agree on the issue at hand in its entirety, they can agree on some parts of it. Yet, they remain stuck, unable to reach a narrow agreement before moving on to the more thorny areas. Why does this happen?
John C. Calhoun (1782-1850), seventh Vice President of the United States. After being elected as a Senator from South Carolina, he resigned his position as Vice President, the first to do so. Following the War of 1812, Congress enacted tariffs on imports that adversely affected Calhoun's home state of South Carolina. He joined and later led calls for a constitutional theory that was called nullification. According to this theory, any state could nullify any Federal law within its borders. The demands for a right of nullification were eventually quelled by, among other things, a revision in the tariffs that made them much less onerous. Nullification was eventually rejected by the states following a decade or so of turbulent debate.
In the workplace, the analog of nullification is the idea that any member of a decision-making group could choose to reject any decision of the group. Clearly, groups that accept this idea are in effect choosing to disband, because they will quickly lose cohesion. It is for this reason that groups must find a way to encourage all members to accept group decisions. Because using force, or threat of ejection, to compel acceptance of controversial decisions is inimical to sustained group cohesion, groups must find ways to gain support of shared decisions, even when obstacles arise.
The painting is in oil on canvas, painted in 1834 by Rembrandt Peale. It is currently at the Gibbes Museum. Photo available at the-athenaeum.org.
When groups confront controversial decisions, differences can sometimes create fractures that make consensus decisions difficult. Typically, even when there is agreement on some factors, groups have difficulty adopting the narrow parts of the issue about which there is agreement. What follows is an exploration of some reasons for this difficulty, with suggestions for dealing with it. We'll use the term C-Issues to denote those issues about which there is Consensus, and D-Issues to denote those issues about which there is Disagreement.
In this Part I, we focus on what moves opinion minorities — those who withhold agreement on D-Issues and who are in the minority.
- Acknowledge concerns of opinion minorities
- In group discussions, members of opinion minorities — the dissenters — sometimes feel isolated and weak. Holders of minority opinions about D-Issues sometimes feel that if they give their consent to the C-Issues, the majority will have gained what it wanted without having given anything in return. In their own eyes, then, the members of an opinion minority can appear weak, and in some cases, foolish.
- The group can address this problem by taking into account some of the important concerns of the opinion minority. For example, they can adjust the framing of some of the D-Issues. If the group then adopts the new framing, even without reaching a decision on the reframed issues, the opinion minority might be moved to agree to some part of the C-Issues. The goal is to take an action that acknowledges in a material way the viewpoint of the opinion minority, so that they feel heard and so that they are, in fact, heard. Think broadly — what is changed can be anything that alleviates the minority's feelings of weakness or isolation. It need not be related to the issue at hand.
- Ban pressuring members of opinion minorities
- If the group has Take an action that acknowledges
in a material way the
viewpoint of the
opinion minorityfaced similar situations in the past, its past behavior can be a contributing cause of the current impasse. For instance, suppose that in the past, after reaching agreement on the C-Issues, group members pressured other group members with respect to the D-Issues. As a consequence, some group members might be withholding consent on C-Issues in the present instance as a tactic for avoiding being pressured with respect to the D-Issues.
- That is, the source of the impasse might not be the questions under discussion. Rather, the source might be past pressuring behavior. If so, the group cannot resolve hurt feelings and bitterness from those past events through discussion of the current questions. Instead, it must address that past behavior directly, returning to the issue at hand only after reaching agreement that pressure tactics are unacceptable.
Next time, we'll examine some of the tactics that appear when some members withhold their agreement. Next in this series Top Next Issue
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
- Dispersed Teams and Latent Communications
- When geography divides a team, conflicts can erupt along the borders. "Us" and "them" becomes a way of seeing the world, and feelings about people at other sites can become hostile. Why does this happen and what can we do about it?
- Social Safety Margins
- As our personal workloads increase, we endure more stress and more time pressure. Inevitably, we have less time for the social niceties that protect us from accidentally hurting each other's feelings. When are we most at risk of incidental harm, and what can we do about it?
- Obstructionist Tactics: Part II
- Teams and groups depend for their success on highly effective cooperation between their members. If even one person is unable or unwilling to cooperate, the team's performance is limited. Here's Part II of a little catalog of tactics.
- A Critique of Criticism: Part I
- Whether we call it "criticism" or "feedback," the receiver can sometimes experience pain, even when the giver didn't intend harm. How does this happen? What can givers of feedback do to increase the chance that the receiver hears the giver's message without experiencing pain?
- 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 Workplace Politics for more related articles.
I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates.
Contact me 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 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:
- The Race to the South Pole: The Power of Agile Development
- 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. Lessons abound. Among the more important lessons are those that demonstrate the power of the agile approach to project management and product development. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program: