When two or more parties work out their differences, they often employ explicit agreements. Written or oral, signed or unsigned, agreements spell out what will be exchanged and when, or what the parties will refrain from doing. Agreements are essential to collaborative work in the context of constrained resources.
When agreements collapse spontaneously, there is no apparent external cause. Even when external conditions remain unchanged, agreements can implode. Distrust and rancor can follow, jeopardizing the possibility of future agreements. Because the long-term consequences of collapse can be more severe, unpleasant, and debilitating than the collapse itself, skill in crafting stable agreements is a valuable asset.
Here are some of the attributes of stable agreements.
- They're voluntary
- Stable agreements are voluntary. Neither party is coerced by the other, or by any other party. For example, the supervisor who addresses toxic conflict between subordinates by ordering them to "work it out or else" is establishing conditions for an unstable agreement.
- If coercion drives the bargain, the agreement can remain stable only as long as the coercion remains effective.
- Information quality is symmetric
- Both parties have equal access to information about the context of the agreement and the value of the items exchanged. That is, one party estimates the fairness of the agreement about as accurately as the other. Information quality asymmetry is especially troublesome when the advantaged party knows that the disadvantaged party is agreeing to an unfair exchange, or when the advantaged party intentionally misleads the disadvantaged party.
- When the truth finally becomes apparent, the disadvantaged party often feels harmed. Relationships degrade. The agreement collapses.
- There are incentives for preserving the confidentiality of confidential terms
- When agreements have If coercion drives the bargain,
the agreement can remain
stable only as long as the
coercion remains effectiveconfidential components, stability requires that there be incentives for maintaining that confidentiality. For example, when an agreement must remain confidential for delicate policy reasons, a trap awaits: the first party to disclose the agreement can sometimes shift responsibility for the need for delicacy onto the other party, even after harvesting value from the agreement.
- When agreements are confidential, they must address the problem of incentives for first disclosure.
- Value exchange is contemporaneous
- Perhaps the most important stabilizer of agreements is simultaneity of exchange. If one party harvests value from the agreement before the other, or faster than the other, then the earlier harvester has an incentive to renege after having harvested enough value. Such an agreement becomes a form of "I'll scratch your back; you stab me in mine."
- Working out contemporaneous exchanges can be difficult, sometimes requiring streams of small bits. Finding workable decompositions can require some cleverness.
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More articles on Conflict Management:
- Conflict Haiku
- When tempers flare, or tension fills the air, many of us contribute to the stew, often without realizing
that we do. Here are some haiku that describe some of the many stances we choose that can lead groups
into tangles, or let those tangles persist once they form.
- Practice Positive Politics
- Politics is a dirty word at work, as elsewhere. We think of it as purely destructive, often distorting
decisions and leading the organization in wrong directions. And sometimes, it does. Politics can be
constructive, though, and you can help to make it so.
- Stalking the Elephant in the Room: I
- The expression "the elephant in the room" describes the thought that most of us are thinking,
and none of us dare discuss. Usually, we believe that in avoidance lies personal safety. But free-ranging
elephants present intolerable risks to both the organization and its people.
- How to Misunderstand Somebody Else
- Misunderstandings are commonplace at work, as in most of the rest of Life. At work, they might be even
more commonplace, because at work it sometimes seems that people are actually trying to misunderstand.
Here's a handy guide for those who want to get better at misunderstanding others.
- Meta-Debate at Work
- Workplace discussions sometimes take the form of informal debate, in which parties who initially have
different perspectives try to arrive at a shared perspective. Meta-debate is one way things can go wrong.
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- Briefly, when people exhibit narcissistic behavior they're engaging in activity that systematically places their own interests and welfare ahead of the interests and welfare of anyone or anything else. It's behavior that threatens the welfare of the organization and everyone employed there. Available here and by RSS on February 28.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
- Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.