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Agreeing to Agree
Jul 5, 2005, 10:35p

So many things can go wrong when leading a group; by far the most difficult to deal with is disagreement. Getting a group of people to agree on a course of action must be the most straining yet important thing that any of us can do. Group disagreement permeates all walks of life, from the local Little League team deciding on a team name to the countries of the United Nations trying to devise a strategy to eradicate world poverty.

I'm convinced that lack of agreement on small issues is the primary reason that we can't actually make progress on the big issues that we basically agree on. We agree in principle, but then we get bogged down in the details. The California state legislature and governor failed again to agree to a budget before the 2006 fiscal year began. Both Republicans and Democrats agree that a budget is necessary, yet can't actually make it happen and agree on a fiscal plan before the year starts. The unbelievable thing is that they agree on more than 98% of the budget; there is no official budget because they disagree on how the last 2% (roughly $2B) should be spent. Without an official budget, though, everyone suffers; even the 98% that everyone agrees on can't receive its funding until the last 2% has been resolved.

I've found that the lack of agreement can often be traced to a single stubborn, powerful individual. This person rarely compromises and is convinced that his way is the right way. In the case of the California budget, this individual is Governor Schwarzenegger.

So how do you deal with disagreement and continue to maintain momentum and make progress? In my experience, the following works well:
- Wait it out: If you have the time, you should proceed on the 98% and leave the remaining 2% to be taken care of by the passage of time. Chances are high that it will sort itself out.
- Leverage your relationship: If you have a good relationship with the stubborn individual, leverage it. Remind the person how important the last 2% is to you personally. If you don't have a good personal relationship with the stubborn individual, be sure to cultivate one in preparation for future disagreements.
- Find data to back up your position
- Collect a group of people who support your claim
- And all the other negotiation tactics...

We would also be much more united and powerful if we could agree. Imagine if the Human Rights Coalition (HRC), a national gay rights group with the yellow-and-blue Equal Sign as their logo, and Equality California (EQCA), a state-wide gay rights group, joined forces? They would be much more effective and would be able to pool their scarce resources to get more done. Instead, they are two separate organizations, which confuses the average citizen who's opinion they're trying to influence (it's like if there were two national sports leagues who both played basketball). Why haven't they united? I suspect it's because the leader of one of the groups is too stubborn, though I don't know for sure.

Getting to agreement should be a solved problem. There should be a process in place, with rules of engagement. Even though I ask for a comfortable procedure to follow, I know I don't want it. I just wish that there was an easier way, that I didn't have to spend 50% of my time mediating and negotiating and could instead spend all of my time actually getting real work done.

Read comments (1) - Comment

Jason - Jul 12, 2005, 1:28p
I agree with this. It is hard to lead a group when everyone inately thinks individually. I have found in my personal experience that the roadblocks generally do come from one usually powerful individual. The problem with any system to manage this in any operation is the human element. Generally, pride and/or a fear of losing one's power or the desire for moreare what detract from or bring to a complete hault what may otherwise be a fruitful group effort. How does one effectively counter something as primal as pride? It can be done but - man does it make life difficult! People also tend to operate with this (bizarre) "us and them" attitude in most situations, stroking their sense of pride and self worth by pointing the finger or building fences. This is most likely what leads to groups' inabilities to work together or join forces. Anyway, I'm sure you didn't plan to spawn such a long comment with this post but all in all, I like what you've written here. Thanks.

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