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 precedentsJeff 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.
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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.