Impasses in Group Decision-Making:
by Rick Brenner
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?
Dry Falls, in Grand County, Washington State. Dry Falls was once one of the greatest waterfalls in Earth's geological history. It was formed after the latest glaciation, about 10,000 to 20,000 years ago, when the melting glaciers created a large lake in western Montana. The glacier formed an ice dam containing the lake, but as the lake grew it eventually broke through the dam, and the suddenly outrushing waters formed what is now Dry Falls. When the falls were active, they were 3.5 miles (5.6 km) wide with a vertical drop of 400 feet (122 m). Compare this to Niagara, at about one mile (1.6 km) by 165 feet (50 m). Western and central Washington state were scoured by this catastrophic flood. The affected area is today known as "scablands."
The harm done by impasses transcends the relationships of the people involved, or the project they're working on. When the impasse finally breaks, people tend to rush around trying to make up for lost time. The work they do is hurried, and probably not of the best quality. The defects that are introduced this way aren't always evident immediately, but like the geological scars of the scablands, they can be long-lasting.
Photo by Jeff Axel courtesy U.S. National Park Service.
Last time we began examining nonsubstantive impasses that arise from hostage-taking, coercion, and confidential commitments. We now continue our exploration.
- Digging in
- At times, people can become "dug in" — so publicly committed to their positions that they're unwilling to alter them for fear of humiliation. Their fears might or might not be realistic.
- You can avoid this yourself by keeping an open mind, or at least, keeping your own counsel. To help others alter their own strongly held positions, propose a halt in debate, resuming only after everyone has agreed to temporarily advocate a position that is both opposed to their own, and already occupied by someone else. This exercise sometimes gives people the insights and freedom they need to modify their positions.
- Currying favor
- Some advocates have made no commitment to anyone else, but instead advocate positions favored by particularly powerful individuals, hoping to accumulate recognition and credit. They haven't secured an agreement for a quid pro quo; they're speculating.
- Persuading these people of the merits of the issue is unlikely to succeed. They follow the object of their attentions as long as they feel there's a chance of success. To convert them, find ways to persuade them that their strategy is unworkable, or that they're mistaken about the views of the people with whom they've aligned themselves.
- Some dissenters seek nothing in terms of the issues at hand, or any other issues, for that matter. Their goal is to prevent the group from reaching decisions of any kind. Perhaps they recognize that anything this group might decide would be inimical to their own goals; or they might want to demonstrate the fecklessness of the group's leadership team.
- Their objectives can be varied, but generally, they want to halt all forward progress. Debating the issues with saboteurs is futile from the perspective of finding a solution, but debate can be useful if it can draw the saboteurs into revealing that sabotage is their goal.
- Dissenters who The harm done by impasses transcends
the relationships of the people
involved, or the project
they're working onfeel that they've been badly treated in the past by this group, or by some members of this group, might seek revenge by blocking forward progress. Here too, the issues are not the issues; rather the issue is the hurt or perceived hurt from some past experience.
- Addressing the impasse in this case is likely to be productive only if both parties acknowledge the past hurt. This can be difficult, because most hurts are more symmetric than either party can acknowledge. Even so, acknowledgment is the place to begin. Privacy and discretion are required. Sometimes, acknowledgement isn't possible for one party or the other.
Impasses are expensive. An impasse prevents a decision on the immediate issue, and the delays that follow can delay anything that depends on that decision. If you're determined to block progress, be certain that you appreciate all the consequences. First 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? 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
- Nasty Questions: Part II
- In meetings, telemeetings, and email we sometimes ask questions that aren't intended to elicit information. Rather, they're indirect attacks intended to advance the questioner's political agenda. Here's part two of a catalog of some favorite tactics.
- Managing Pressure: Milestones and Deliveries
- Pressed repeatedly for "status" reports, you might guess that they don't want status — they want progress. Things can get so nutty that responding to the status requests gets in the way of doing the job. How does this happen and what can you do about it? Here's Part III of a set of tactics and strategies for dealing with pressure.
- Tangled Thread Troubles
- Even when we use a facilitator to manage a discussion, managing a queue for contributors can sometimes lead to problems. Here's a little catalog of those difficulties.
- What You See Isn't Always What You Get
- We all engage in interpreting the behavior of others, usually without thinking much about it. Whenever you notice yourself having a strong reaction to someone's behavior, consider the possibility that your interpretation has outrun what you actually know.
- What Insubordinate Non-Subordinates Want: Part I
- When you're responsible for an organizational function, and someone not reporting to you won't recognize your authority, or doesn't comply with policies you rightfully established, you have a hard time carrying out your responsibilities. Why does this happen?
See also Conflict Management and Workplace Politics for more related articles.
Forthcoming Issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 24: The Perils of Novel Argument
- When people use novel or sophisticated arguments to influence others, the people they're trying to influence are sometimes subject to cognitive biases triggered by the nature of the argument. This puts them at a disadvantage relative to the influencer. How does this happen? Available here and by RSS on December 24
- And on December 31: The Power and Hazards of Anecdotes: Part I
- Anecdotes are short stories — sometimes just a single sentence. They're powerful tools of persuasion, but they can also be dangerous, to both anecdote tellers and anecdote listeners. Available here and by RSS on December 31
I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates.
Contact Rick 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:
- Human-Centered Risk Management
- Most of us can assess technological risks, but risks related to human behavior tend to resist our best efforts. This session provides a framework for evaluating risks related to the behavior of individuals, teams, organizations and people generally. Human-centered risk differs from technological or market risk, because objective evaluation requires acknowledging personal and organizational limitations and failures. Since some of those limitations and failures might apply to the people assessing the risks, or to their superiors, there's a tendency to deny them or to explain them away. Our approach examines capability, organization, context, risk mitigation, and workplace politics. It has tools for guiding the assessment and management of human-centered risk, and we show how to extend these tools to suit your situation. You'll learn how to identify sources of risk in human behavior; recognize systemic and individual barriers to acknowledging risk; assess the effects of organizational turbulence; determine the risk associated with inappropriate internal risk transfer; estimate the effects of team dysfunction, toxic conflict and turnover; and measure the impact of workplace politics. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:
- The Politics of Meetings for People Who Hate Politics
- There's a lot more to running an effective meeting than having the right room, the right equipment, and the right people. With meetings, the whole really is more than the sum of its parts. How the parts interact with each other and with external elements is as important as the parts themselves. And those interactions are the essence of politics for meetings. This program explores techniques for leading meetings that are based on understanding political interactions, and using that knowledge effectively to meet organizational goals. 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: