Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 15, Issue 23;   June 10, 2015: The Perils of Limited Agreement

The Perils of Limited Agreement


When a group member agrees to a proposal, even with conditions, the group can move forward. Such agreement is constructive, but there are risks. What are those risks and what can we do about them?
Two hermit crabs in their snail shells

Two hermit crabs, current residents of abandoned shells of marine snails. Technically, the snail shells aren't abandoned. The snails died. Hermit crabs take up residence though, and as they grow, they occasionally must relocate to slightly larger shells. In so doing, they sometimes engage in "negotiations" with the current occupants of shells they deem more suitable. Research indicates that these interactions, which look more like battles than negotiations, can sometimes be properly regarded as negotiations, between an "initiator" crab (formerly regarded as the aggressor), and a non-initiator. Careful study indicates the length of the interaction is correlated not with the goodness of fit of the non-initiator's shell to the body of the initiator, but instead with the goodness of fit of the initiator's shell to the body of the non-initiator. In other words, if the non-initiator is satisfied with a swap, the interaction is brief.

Human negotiations often follow a similar pattern. We call such negotiations "win-win." For more information about hermit crab negotiations, see Brian A. Hazlett, "Interspecific negotiations: Mutual gain in exchanges of a limiting resource," in Animal Behaviour, vol. 31, Issue 1, February 1983, pages 160-163. Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Trying to reach a joint decision, a group might find that some of its members are willing to agree to the proposal at hand, but only with conditions. Trouble can arise when this happens, both for the majority and the minority. The trouble can persist beyond the present discussion, preventing the group from reaching agreements on other matters for some time to come.

How can that happen? And what can we do to avoid it?

Let's suppose that for several weeks, Jeff has been objecting to Jessica's proposal. At one meeting, he announces that he now accepts her solution, "in this case." Jeff is expressing his limited agreement. Without saying so explicitly, Jeff's position is that "Jessica's solution will work in this case, but I don't think (or I don't know that) it will work in every case" or possibly "in any other case."

Jeff is indeed helping the group resolve the present issue by finding common ground that can serve as a foundation for further progress. But while he is expressing agreement, it is not without risk. Here are some of those risks.

Genuine reservations
Jeff might not have in mind specific objections to general use of Jessica's approach, but he's reserving his right to object to future applications. The disagreement he just resolved can therefore arise again someday.
Future agreements can be severely threatened if the majority chooses to use Jeff's limited agreement as a precedent. If that happens, Jeff (or any other dissenter) is less likely to offer limited agreement to resolve future disagreements for fear of setting precedents. As a member of the majority, avoid exploiting as precedents any limited agreements by dissenters.
Distrust and resentment
Distrusting Jeff's limited agreement, some of the majority might wonder about its boundaries. They might question him about those boundaries, even though Jeff has clearly accepted Jessica's approach for the present issue.
If that happens, Future agreements can be severely
threatened if the majority chooses
to use limited agreements as precedents
Jeff might feel attacked. He has just made a significant contribution to group harmony, and he's being rewarded with an inquisition. Resentments can flourish. If a limited agreement clearly covers the present issue, that's sufficient. Let future issues define its true boundaries.
Limited agreement proliferation
In groups that haven't often experienced limited agreement, some members might notice the advantages it affords the consenter. It gives the consenter room to withhold consent on future matters, even if the consenter has no substantive objections in the present instance. Limited agreement can create political capital, because agreement withheld can be useful in future bargaining. More precisely, giving unconditional agreement can surrender political capital unnecessarily.
This realization can entice other group members to liberally employ limited agreement in future debates, which can create difficulties for the group as it tries to forge agreements on even the most straightforward proposals.

Although limited agreement has risks, it's useful for breaking deadlocks. Accept the risks — judiciously. Go to top Top  Next issue: Why Sidebars Happen  Next Issue

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs 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. More info

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrensgYwGCFPsyuKdPnOner@ChacmrIuLvcvJkyJUSPToCanyon.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.

Related articles

More articles on Workplace Politics:

A credit thiefDevious Political Tactics: Credit Appropriation
Managers and supervisors who take credit for the work of subordinates or others who feel powerless are using a tactic I call Credit Appropriation. It's the mark of the unsophisticated political operator.
The 1991 eruption of Mount PinatuboManaging Pressure: Communications and Expectations
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 I of a little catalog of tactics and strategies for dealing with pressure.
The Declaration of IndependenceMore Stuff and Nonsense
Some of what we believe is true about work comes not from the culture at work, but from the larger culture. These beliefs are much more difficult to root out, but sometimes just a little consideration does help. Here are some examples.
Firefighter lighting grass using a drip torchBeyond Our Control
When bad things happen, despite our plans and our best efforts, we sometimes feel responsible. We failed. We could have done more. But is that really true? Aren't some things beyond our control?
The Panzerkampfwagen VIII Maus, a German World War II super-heavy tankWhy There Are Pet Projects
Pet projects are common in organizations, including organizations with healthy and mature planning processes. They usually consume resources at levels beyond what the organization intends, which raises the question of their genesis: Where do pet projects come from?

See also Workplace Politics and Conflict Management for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A Mustang GT illegally occupying two parking spaces at Vaughan Mills Mall, OntarioComing March 21: Narcissistic Behavior at Work: III
People who behave narcissistically tend to regard themselves as special. They systematically place their own interests and welfare ahead of anyone or anything else. In this part of the series we consider how this claimed specialness affects the organization and its people. Available here and by RSS on March 21.
Santa Claus arrives at 57th and Broadway in New York in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day ParadeAnd on March 28: Narcissistic Behavior at Work: IV
Narcissistic behavior at work is more damaging than rudeness or egotism. It leads to faulty decisions that compromise organizational missions. In this part of the series we examine the effects of constant demands for attention and admiration. Available here and by RSS on March 28.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenmJIAFEaKCYMtDUKQner@ChacDSTFFcNkoSWFnigaoCanyon.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

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople 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.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
Please donate!The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!

Beware any resource that speaks of "winning" at workplace politics or "defeating" it. You can benefit or not, but there is no score-keeping, and it isn't a game.

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs 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!
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
My free weekly email newsletter gives concrete tips and suggestions for dealing with the challenging but everyday situations we all face.
A Tip A DayA Tip a Day arrives by email, or by RSS Feed, each business day. It's 20 to 30 words at most, and gives you a new perspective on the hassles and rewards of work life. Most tips also contain links to related articles. Free!
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.