A tool for transforming resistance to insights in decision-making

By Gemma Jiang

author_gemma-jiang
Gemma Jiang (biography)

Do you encounter resistance from your team members, especially in regard to difficult decisions? How might decision-making processes be better facilitated to generate insights instead of resistance?

I describe a conceptual framework and an accompanying practical tool from Lewis Deep Democracy (2021) that can transform resistance to insights in decision-making processes.

The conceptual framework: Understanding how decision making generates resistance

It is important first to understand the consciousness of a team. If you think of a team’s consciousness as an iceberg, the ideas and opinions that are expressed are the conscious part above the waterline, while those that are not expressed are the unconscious part below the waterline. If decisions are made based only on the team’s expressed ideas and opinions, those below the waterline will likely form resistance. This is often what happens with “majority rules” democracy.

When decisions are based on a majority vote (which can be as low as 51%), what happens to the opinions of the minority? If they are not taken into account, they may turn into minority resistors who can sabotage the implementation efforts. Their resistance behaviors can be passive, such as sarcastic jokes, excuses and gossip, or overt, such as failure to communicate, disruption, withdrawal from the team or open conflicts. It is important for leaders to identify these resistance behaviors and transform them.

The Argument tool I introduce next goes below the waterline and uncovers the wisdom and potential latent there.

The tool: The Argument

The Argument is a practical tool to bring all the issues affecting a decision to light. It has four steps.

Step 1. Gain agreement on the process and set the safety rules.
Difficult decisions often involve different views, strong personalities, and heightened emotions. To start the process, it is important to gain agreement on the whole process from all team members and set safety rules. Suggested safety rules include no one has a monopoly on the truth; take care of yourself; decouple the views from the person. Anything goes, as long as all the people involved agree.

Step 2. Say it all.
Assuming there are two sides (there may be more), each side take turns to “throw all the arrows”, holding nothing back. It is important that when one side is speaking, the other side listens, and does not respond. At this stage, listening is given prominence. When one side has finished, the other side says everything from their side. Because new information may be raised by each side, this process can be repeated multiple times as long as new information is forthcoming.

Also key in this step is that any team member can swap sides at any time. This means that one person can support both sides, simply by stating their support when it is each side’s turn. In this step, the team is becoming more and more conscious, with more ideas and opinions being surfaced.

Step 3. Reflect on and own the insights gained.
Each person takes time to reflect on and talk about the new insights they gained during step 2. Some of the things that were said during step 2 will hit home, and it is important for everyone to own and articulate what they learnt with “I” statements. For example, “I was really struck by what [person x] said, as I had not thought of the issue that way before.” This is critical because these insights inform the decision-making in step 4.

Step 4. Make the decision.
Building on the insights generated by Steps 1 to 3, the decision is then often not difficult to make. The decision may be different from what people originally had in mind; it may be more innovative and creative. Alternatively, it may be that more information of a certain type is needed before a decision can be made. Because of The Argument process and the collective input, there will be a sense of buy-in and a commitment to the decision.

Sometimes, however, there will still be a minority group who do not agree with the decision. It is important for the team leader to ensure that there are no ideas and opinions left unsaid and that everything has been taken into account. This is not only about minimizing the chance that this group will become resisters, but also about ensuring that the best decision has been made under the circumstances. A team leader may seek to broker a compromise between the new majority and minority, by asking the minority: “what would it take for you to support the decision?” and from that determining what compromises can be made.

This process is intended for high stakes decisions with a strong emotional tone. However, it can also be applied to lesser, easier decisions. Teams can build up their comfort level with this process and with each other by starting with easier decisions.

Conclusion

This tool aims to create psychological safety for expressing divergent perspectives during steps 1 and 2. It then transforms divergence into insights and enables convergence towards a collaborative decision in steps 3 and 4.

This tool can be used in conjunction with the gradients of agreement tool described by Hannah Love in her blog post Gradients of agreement for democratic decision-making. For example, when a decision is first made, the gradients of agreement tool can be used to determine if there is substantial disagreement warranting use of “The Argument.” The gradients of agreement tool can be used again after Step 4 of the Argument to determine if substantive disagreement remains.

These tools are useful for bringing the teams out of the groan zone between divergent and convergent thinking as described by Carrie Kappel in her blog post.

What is your experience in getting through the groan zone? Do you have additional tools to share? Does the concept of the iceberg of team consciousness resonate with you? Do you think “The Argument” will be useful for teams you lead or participate in?

Source:
This blog post is based on lessons I learnt in a course “Leading on the Edge of Complexity” provided by Lewis Deep Democracy (2021) and my experience applying “The Argument” in decision making in teams I lead and facilitate.

Reference:
Lewis Deep Democracy. (2021). Lewis Deep Democracy (Myrna and Greg Lewis). (Online): https://www.lewisdeepdemocracy.com/

Biography: Gemma Jiang, PhD is the Director of Organizational Innovation at the University of Pittsburgh in the USA. She applies complexity leadership theory, social network analysis, and a suite of facilitation methods to enable transdisciplinary teams to converge upon solutions for challenges of societal importance.

9 thoughts on “A tool for transforming resistance to insights in decision-making”

  1. Dear Gemma,

    thank you very much for your framework. I find it very interesting.

    I have a question to you. From this post it is not entirely clear to me, what happens in the steps 3 and 4. From what I understood, in step 2 different ideas are presented, one by one, in step 3 people reflect on the ideas said, and in step 4 the decision is made. So I am curious, what happens in between 3 and 4? Are these ideas being re-phrased based on the reflections? Does convergence happen there? And even further, do participants always have to agree to reach the end of the process or is it ok to agree to disagree?

    In our research group we have recently tested participatory causal-loop diagram method. Its aim is to uncover the untold between the opposing sides and by working on a causal-loop diagram create a common understanding where all the sides can agree. So the opposing opinions might (and should) still be there. It will provide a full(er) picture on the situation.

    thank you.
    Sincerely,
    Varvara

    Reply
  2. Thanks for bringing deep democracy work to this space, Gemma. Step 1can be the most difficult part, especially in emotionally charged situations or with teams that don’t have “below the surface” levels of trust. My introduction to this approach came during training when we were in the same space and people physically moved from one side of The Argument to another. Embodying our opinions, not merely expressing them verbally, was very powerful. What has your experience been with what we might call “Step 0”- helping a group determine what decisions benefit from this approach and which ones are better suited for other methods?

    Reply
    • Dear Anne,

      Thank you for sharing your experience with this method. I completely agree, step 1 is the most difficult part, esp. with high stake decisions, which also comes with strong emotions and big challenges with trust. I have not used this method in situations like that. The few times I applied this method, the team members have all been calm and collected, because they were not decisions of huge consequences. Your question about step 0 is a great one. I am not sure how to answer it. One thing I can say is that this method is best suited when you have only two choices left. So it might not be a good choice if there are many divergent options for the team to tease from. That is why I mentioned Hannah Love and Carrie Kappel’s posts.

      Yes, physically moving around to embody our opinions can be very powerful. I am a big fan of embodiment. I cannot wait to do that in a physical setting.

      Thank you for your comments, Anne, as always.

      Gemma

      Reply
  3. Having done a fair bit of conflict resolution in my issue analysis work, I can say that this approach of debating differences in a formal setting often works. It often turns out that people do not understand the other side’s arguments and when they do the differences can turn out to be small or even subject to compromise.

    I can suggest an additional feature. If the disagreement is emotional try putting the points made on a blackboard, with each side approving its entries. In this way they are not arguing with each other personally, just trying to get their reasoning made clear.

    I did this once with miners and mine operators who were really angry with each other. At the end both sides said they had not understood the other’s issues and they were actually working on solutions. The way the anger was replaced by thinking was dramatic.

    Reply
    • Hi, David, I really appreciate your confirmation about the effectiveness of the tool, and the tip you gave about putting the points on a blackboard. It helps to strengthen the point Anne made above about emotionally charged situation. The example about miners and mine operators is powerful. I esp. love how you summarized it as replacing anger with thinking. So it turns out the Argument can be a great tool for empathy: let’s quiet down our emotions and really hear what the other parties have to say. Then we realized our strong emotions were based on misunderstanding, and when clarity of thinking is brought in, strong emotions evaporates. This has been my typical experience as well. This is really a very powerful tool.

      Reply
  4. Thanks for this helpful multi-step process description, Gemma! I like the step in which the hidden iceberg is allowed to the surface and others can voice their opinion on its contents. However, I’m wondering how this would work in a group with large power differences between members: will everybody equally honestly share their hidden thoughts and opinions? Or would it be useful to adjust step 2 in such a way that either people might anonymously voice their opinion, or participate in small group discussions (perhaps composing these groups carefully with an eye to hierarchies), or otherwise accommodate power relations?

    Reply
    • What a thoughtful question, Machiel! I really appreciate this, and I can completely see power differences playing out in the process. The key to step 2 is the psychological safety gained in step 1. So in situations of high stake decisions and large power differences, more work should be done in step 1 to ensure psychological safety. All your accommodations sound reasonable as well. However, I would prefer to go deeper and find out why power difference plays such a big role in psychological safety in the collaborative decision making process, and that might point to deeper issues in the culture.

      In my experience I have not encountered situations where power differences called for accommodations, but it is a great scenario to plan for.

      Also, I would like to point out that not all decisions need to be made collaboratively. I think choosing what decisions to use this method for is also important.

      Reply
    • I am glad this is helpful, Daniel. This is definitely one of my go-to method when it comes to collaborative decision making. It is quite easy to implement, and fun as well. Surprising insights always emerge. Good luck with playing with the method. Hope to hear stories from you!

      Reply

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