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 Funding was approved, and the legislation was not repealed.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
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More articles on Conflict Management:
- Dismissive Gestures: Part I
- Humans are nothing if not inventive. In the modern organization, where verbal insults are deprecated, we've developed hundreds of ways to insult each other silently (or nearly so). Here's part one of a catalog of non-verbal insults.
- Responding to Threats: Part I
- Threats are one form of communication common to many organizational cultures, especially as pressure mounts. Understanding the varieties of threats can be helpful in determining a response that fits for you.
- Reframing Hurtful Dismissiveness
- Targets of dismissive remarks often feel that their concerns are being judged as unimportant, which can be painful when their concerns are real. But there is an alternative to pain. It requires a little skill and discipline, but it can work.
- Impasses in Group Decision-Making: Part IV
- Some impasses that develop in group decision-making relate to the substance of the discussion. Some are not substantive, but still present serious obstacles. What can we do about nonsubstantive impasses?
- Ethical Debate at Work: Part I
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See also Conflict Management and Workplace Politics for more related articles.
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- The problem of people who dominate meetings is so serious that we've even devised processes intended to more fairly allocate speaking time. What's happening here? Available here and by RSS on February 24.
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