8 common reasons agreements fall apart after workplace negotiations

“The object of good mediation, good negotiation and good conflict management isn’t to get people to agreement. It’s to help people reach agreement they’ll want to act on once we all leave the table.”

I say this when I train advanced mediators and when I teach mediation and conflict management in organizations and groups. And I said it last night while meeting with a community group interested in getting “inside mediator” training for some of their members.

Why do solutions and agreements fall apart after the organizational conflict appears resolved? I see these eight reasons more frequently than any other:

  • It wasn’t really agreement. This is the big kahuna of agreement failures and most of the others listed below are variations of this one. It may look like an agreement and sound like an agreement, but a well-trained organizational mediator knows what to look for to make sure it really is. Making nice, for instance, isn’t real resolution.
  • Agreement-building was hurried. This happens because people are uncomfortable in the groan zone, hurry to solve before fully understanding, and feel organizational pressure to multi-task and handle conflict “efficiently.”
  • They felt pressured by someone in higher authority. Leaders and managers sometimes describe “passive-aggressive” employees who pretend to agree but then never act on the “agreement.” Stop diagnosing the passive-aggressives (there are far fewer than you think) and start understanding that pushing creates resistance, even if that resistance doesn’t show up ’til later.
  • The agreement failed to solve the real problem. Solve the wrong problem and – you guessed it – you get the wrong solutions.
  • It didn’t really meet their most important interests. Interests are people’s underlying needs, the reasons they take the positions they do (common interests in organizational conflict include reputation, job security, career advancement, physical and psychological safety). The theory goes that an agreement is more likely to be sound if it meets one or more of each person’s important interests.
  • The not-really-agreed-upon solution didn’t come from those directly involved in the conflict but it sure sounded good at the time. Too much organizational conflict is handled by giving advice liberally and persuading people to take it. It’s ego-building for the advice-giver but generally a lousy way to really address problems.
  • There were stakeholders missing. Absent stakeholders can unravel an agreement faster than kudzu grows overnight.
  • Something changed. It happens. That’s why no agreement can stand the test of time forever and it’s why you never want to brow-beat someone for failing to act on an agreement. You want them to be willing to return to the table and re-work the agreement.
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