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
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See also Conflict Management and Workplace Politics for more related articles.
Forthcoming Issues of Point Lookout
- Coming February 4: Bottlenecks: Part I
- Some people take on so much work that they become "bottlenecks." The people around them repeatedly find themselves stuck, awaiting responses or decisions. Why does this happen and what are the costs? Available here and by RSS on February 4
- And on February 11: Bottlenecks: Part II
- When some people take on so much work that they become "bottlenecks," they expose the organization to risks. Managing those risks is a first step to ending the bottlenecking pattern. Available here and by RSS on February 11
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