Impasses in Group Decision-Making:
by Rick Brenner
In group decision-making, impasses can develop. Some are related to the substance of the issue at hand. With some effort, we can usually resolve substantive impasses. But treating nonsubstantive impasses in the same way doesn't work. Here's why.
U.S. Congressman Jim Moran talks with constituents at a meeting on the federal budget. From October 1 to October 16, 2013, the U.S. federal government was in a state of curtailed operations, commonly called a "shutdown," in which approximately 800,000 government workers were placed on unpaid leave. The cause of the shutdown was the failure of Congress to appropriate funds for operations after funds expired at the end of September. That failure, in turn, was caused by the inability of the U.S. House of Representatives to satisfy a minority of representatives who demanded the repeal of health care legislation enacted several years earlier. In effect, the minority held approval of operations funding hostage to achieve their desired goal of repeal of the health care legislation. In the end, their attempt failed. Funding was approved, and the legislation was not repealed.
On October 1, Rep. Moran delivered a speech in the House of Representatives in which he analyzed the maneuver of the minority as a hostage-taking. He was not alone. Public debate used the hostage terminology repeatedly. Indeed, a Google search for the phrase shutdown 2013 hostage yields over 600,000 results. Identifying maneuvers such as these as hostage takings can be helpful for bringing them to an end.
Photo courtesy U.S. House of Representatives.
When groups try to reach decisions, consensus is sometimes very desirable, if not required. But even if consensus isn't actually required, disagreements can cast doubt on any proposition that is eventually adopted. In these circumstances, impasses can block all forward progress. Because failure to reach agreement — or even serious difficulty in reaching agreement — can be problematic, it's useful to know how to deal with impasses.
We can deal effectively with substantive impasses by examining the issues fairly and openly. See "Impasses in Group Decision-Making: Part I," Point Lookout for October 10, 2012, for a set of useful guidelines.
Nonsubstantive impasses arise not from the substance of the immediate issue, but from the dynamics of the group, its members, and its context. Because nonsubstantive impasses can arise in so many different ways, approaches to dealing with them are more varied than are the techniques for dealing with substantive impasses. Here are some examples of nonsubstantive impasses. In what follows, we'll use the term C-issues to denote the issues with respect to which the group is trying to reach consensus.
- Bargaining, extortion, and hostage taking
- Occasionally, dissenters exploit the group's need for consensus by demanding concessions on unrelated matters in exchange for their acquiescence. In effect, they hold consensus hostage.
- Progress is unlikely if the C-issues are the focus of negotiations between advocates and dissenters, because the dissenters usually are seeking unrelated concessions. Focus the discussion instead on that which motivates the dissent.
- External coercion
- Some dissenters are externally constrained to oppose the C-issues, independent of their personal views on the matter. For example, their superiors might oppose the issues, or the dissenters might believe that their superiors oppose the issues.
- In these cases, even though the dissenters engage in debate of the C-issues, such debate is pointless. The principals aren't the dissenters; the principals are those who are coercing or directing the dissenters. Carry the debate to the true principals.
- Confidential commitments
- Some members of the Nonsubstantive impasses arise not
from the substance of the issue,
but from the dynamics of the group,
its members, and its contextgroup might have made confidential commitments to each other or to other people who aren't present. Abiding by those commitments might be more or less difficult, depending on the proposal adopted by the group relative to the C-issues. Those who have made commitments therefore try to convince the group to adopt proposals that are in alignment with their confidential commitments.
- It is the confidentiality that makes this mechanism so problematic. If the commitments could be revealed, resolving the conflict might be very easy. But those who are bound by the confidential commitments typically try to conceal the existence of the commitments by fabricating arguments in favor of positions consistent with their commitments, or arguments countering positions inconsistent with their commitments. The key to resolution is a private discussion, person-to-person, in which creating a sense of safety might facilitate disclosure of the commitment.
We'll continue next time with more examples of nonsubstantive impasses. First in this series Next in this series Top Next Issue
Is every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. Order Now!
Your comments are welcome
Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrendSdXdNWnSthSbnmqner@ChacYyJqOdruzLwFyZIwoCanyon.comSend 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:
- Deniable Intimidation
- Some people achieve or maintain power by intimidating others in deniable ways. Too often, when intimidators succeed, their success rests in part on our unwillingness to resist, or on our lack of skill. By understanding their tactics, and by preparing responses, we can deter intimidators.
- How to Avoid Responsibility
- Taking responsibility and a willingness to be held accountable are the hallmarks of either a rising star in a high-performance organization, or a naïve fool in a low-performance organization. Either way, you must know the more popular techniques for avoiding responsibility.
- How Targets of Bullies Can Use OODA: Part II
- To make the bullying stop, many targets of bullies try to defend themselves. But defense alone is not sufficient — someone must make the bully stop. That's why counterattack is much more likely to work.
- Preventing the Hurt of Hurtful Dismissiveness
- When we use the hurtfully dismissive remarks of others to make ourselves feel bad, there are techniques for recovering relatively quickly. But we can also learn to respond to these remarks altogether differently. When we do that, recovery is unnecessary.
- When Somebody Throws a Nutty
- To "throw a nutty" — at work, that is — can include anything from extreme verbal over-reaction to violent physical abuse of others. When someone exhibits behavior at the milder end of this spectrum, what responses are appropriate?
See also Conflict Management and Workplace Politics for more related articles.
Forthcoming Issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 2: Suppressing Dissent: Part II
- Disagreeing with the majority in a meeting, or in some cases, merely disagreeing with the Leader, can lead to isolation and other personal difficulties. Here is Part II of a set of tactics used by Leaders who choose not to tolerate differences of opinion, emphasizing the meeting context. Available here and by RSS on December 2.
- And on December 9: Clearing Conflict Fog
- At times, groups can become so embroiled in destructive conflict that conventional conflict resolution becomes ineffective. How does this happen? What can we do about it? Available here and by RSS on December 9.
I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates.
Contact Rick for details at rbrencMuFAxTYvzRSjMdaner@ChacHjLMcoJRsvKDkjyQoCanyon.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
- Managing in Fluid Environments
- Most people now work in environments that can best be characterized as fluid, because they're subject to continual change. We never know whats coming next. In such environments, managing — teams, projects, groups, departments, or the enterprise — often entails moving from surprise to surprise while somehow staying almost on track. It's a nerve-wracking existence. This program provides numerous tools that help managers who work in fluid environments. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:
- Cognitive Biases and Workplace Decision-Making
- For most of us, making decisions is a large part of what we do at work. And we tend to believe that we make our decisions rationally, except possibly when stressed or hurried. That is a mistaken belief — very few of our decisions are purely rational. In this eye-opening yet entertaining program, Rick Brenner guides you through the fascinating world of cognitive biases, and he’ll give concrete tips to help you control the influence of cognitive biases. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program: