Overcoming Deadlock in the Workplace

People don’t always agree! That’s one thing which is guaranteed in life. The same is true in the workplace where it is not uncommon for ‘deadlock’ situations to arise.

Differing perspectives and contrary opinions are, of course, a good thing. Ideas and assumptions should be challenged and tested. This is part of a healthy and inclusive organisational culture. Personally, I despair if I am in a meeting with a bunch of ‘nodding dogs’, who agree passively with everything that is suggested without offering critique, challenge or alternative approaches. Bordering on indifference, this can sap creativity and energy out of a team and lead to mistakes and problems further down the line.

At the other extreme, however, are strong-willed, determined individuals who each have a clear but opposing view on a course of action. This can happen in various circumstances. For example, two team members of equivalent status may have competing views on how a task should be carried out. More widely, there could be disagreements between teams or departments in the same organisation; there may be issues in client or supplier relationships; or negotiating a business deal may end in a stalemate situation.

Major disagreements, where both sides are unprepared to give way to the other, are disruptive to business and need to be addressed swiftly. While some situations can be resolved by those involved without intervention, there will be occasions where you, as a manager, need to step in and exercise your mediation skills.

In deadlock situations, both parties will likely take a binary position. Each believe they are right, and the other party is wrong. It’s often as simple as that. Neither side will want to give way, for fear of ‘losing face’ in front of the other and the real issues at the heart of the deadlock may then take secondary importance. Long-term bitterness and resentment may then arise.

Take the example of two colleagues disagreeing. Those two parties may have different jobs or roles in the organisation, so each will be looking at the situation from a different perspective. It is important for a manager to respect that and empathise with both positions. Getting each party to understand each other’s point of view is also crucial in achieving a mutually acceptable outcome.

Mediating in a deadlock situation can be a positive way of encouraging a re-evaluation of a problem. Bringing the relevant parties together and asking a series of critical questions can prove enlightening. Organisational psychologist Roger Schwarz (2015) has proposed that this can be done through considering the situation from the interests, assumptions and information used by the people involved.

Start by determining the personal and/or professional interests of both parties in respect of the situation. In other words, what do they need to achieve through the solution? What’s in it for them?

Next, identify the specific points of disagreement and the areas that must be overcome to address the deadlock. Why has each party come to a particular view? What information or reasoning was used to reach that conclusion? One may take a logical evidence-based approach, another may be led by gut instinct. Others may have different interpretations of the same data.

Then consider whether the parties are making any assumptions based on their interests or biases (whether consciously or unconsciously)? Assumptions, whether correct or incorrect, are made in the absence of proof. These assumptions might be over how long a task will take to complete or the competence of a person to complete it to the required standard. One person might think it’s possible, the other may disagree. People’s assumptions may differ and should be challenged, ideally with evidence.

Now, in light of the reflection above, consider the areas where there is common agreement between the parties. Are there any shared interests or assumptions? Is there now agreement on the type of information which is relevant in informing a decision?

Finally, effort should be made between the parties to work together, using these newly shared assumptions, information and interests, to develop a solution which is acceptable to both parties.

It is crucial that this process is handled diplomatically and with professional courtesy between the parties. Deadlocks can be emotive for those involved and, if not handled sensitively, they can be explosive. It would be naïve to suggest this always works. Sometimes as a manager, you will need to make the call yourself and chose one side over the other. However, the same reasoning should be applied, and it is always better to enable the parties involved to come to their own solution rather than having a ‘winner’ and a ‘loser’.

Taking the time to understand viewpoints we don’t agree with, challenging our own assumptions and re-evaluating our views, are traits that seem to be uncommon in these highly polarised times. However, a willingness to be open-minded and to respectfully challenge each other whilst working towards mutually acceptable solutions, is a great way of developing healthy organisational cultures where we learn and grow through our interaction with our colleagues.

About the author

Nathan is a member of the senior management team at RWA and manages the company’s e-learning, content and professional standards department. He joined RWA as a content writer in 2016, on successfully completing his PhD. Nathan previously worked in the private, public and charitable sectors and has a broad range of experience, including research and analysis, project delivery, corporate governance, and team leadership.

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