Impasses in Group Decision-Making:
by Rick Brenner
When groups can't reach agreement on all aspects of an issue, the tactics of some members can actually exacerbate disagreement. Here's Part II of an exploration of impasses, emphasizing two of the more toxic tactics.
The Bill of Rights — the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution. The Bill actually was a Bill, introduced in the First Congress, and sent on after much wrangling, to the states for ratification. How it came about is a wonderful illustration of the approach to impasse that is founded on acceptance and serious consideration of the views of dissenters. Ratification of the Constitution was a controversial decision, with two views contending for dominance. The dominant group were the Federalists, who favored a strong central government and who felt that no enumeration of rights was advisable. The dissenting minority were the Anti-Federalists, who were wary of strong central government and who wanted specific protection of individual rights. Ratification of the Constitution met serious opposition in some states, including in Massachusetts. But it succeeded there based on an approach that came to be known as the Massachusetts Compromise, which enabled Anti-Federalists to vote to ratify the Constitution in exchange for a commitment by Federalists to consider the amendments that would become the Bill of Rights. This compromise was replicated in other states where ratification was problematic, and on September 13, 1788, the Constitution was finally declared ratified, albeit at that time by only 11 of the thirteen states that eventually ratified it.
The first Congress met in New York City on March 4, 1789, dominated by the Federalists, 20 to 2 in the Senate, and 48 to 11 in the House. It was this First Congress that adopted and sent to the states for ratification the Bill of Rights, which dealt specifically with the Anti-Federalists' objections. Read more about the history of the Bill of Rights. Photo courtesy US Library of Congress.
We began an exploration of impasses last time by focusing on the perspective of opinion minorities. In our scenario, we postulated that the group did have consensus on some issues, which we called the C-Issues. But there was disagreement on other issues — the D-Issues. In this Part II, we explore two tactics that tend to strengthen the impasse, preventing agreement.
- Hostage tactics
- Some group members believe that by taking hostages, they can compel the rest of the group to adopt a position more to their liking. The hostage of choice is often one or more of the C-Issues. In the view of the hostage takers, refusing to agree to the C-Issues exerts pressure on the rest of the group to comply with the hostage-takers' wishes. This tactic can become corrosive if members of the rest of the group press the hostage-takers to justify their opposition to the hostage C-Issues. The hostage-takers then devise arguments to justify their opposition to the C-Issues, which, often, they themselves don't believe. What little agreement there was with respect to C-Issues might then vanish. Even worse, others in the group might become intransigent, if they feel that acceding to the hostage-takers' demands will only invite further demands and further hostages, either by the hostage-takers or by others who witness the success of the hostage-takers.
- Acceding to hostage-takers' demands might seem appealing, but it does usually lead to more widespread hostage taking. Because questioning the hostage-takers about C-Issues risks converting C-Issues to D-Issues, approaches to forging agreement must always focus on D-Issues. Make the concerns of the objectors visible, and deal with them substantively.
- Abuse of the concept of precedent
- Some group members might fear that after they agree to the C-Issues, they won't be able to influence subsequent decisions sufficiently with respect to the D-Issues. They see partial agreement as the first step on a slippery slope, fearing that others will use their partial agreement as inappropriate leverage for later decisions. In effect, they fear they might be confronted with, "I don't see what your problem is with D-Issue #3, because you agreed to C-Issue #2." That tactic can indeed be an abuse of the concept of precedent, if it relies solely on the fact of agreeing to C-Issue #2, rather than on the substance of C-Issue #2, the substance of D-Issue #3, and their connection.
- If abuse of precedent Acceding to hostage-takers' demands
might seem appealing, but it does
usually lead to more
widespread hostage-takinghas occurred in the past, then certainly the concern is real, and the group must deal with it. To address the concern, the group can agree that such content-free appeals to precedents are unacceptable.
Hostage-taking by dissenters, or precedent abuse by those pressuring dissenters, are indirect attempts to gain adherents. To avoid strengthening impasses, deal directly with objections to agreement. First in this series Next in this series Top Next Issue
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- One dysfunction of face-to-face meetings is the Trip to Abilene, which leads groups to make decisions no members actually support. It can afflict virtual meetings, too, even more easily. Available here and by RSS on March 4.
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- One obstacle to high performance in teams is the historical debate — arguing about who said what and when, or who agreed to what and when. Here are suggestions for ending and preventing historical debates. Available here and by RSS on March 11.
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