Action-Forcing Mechanisms

Brad Spangler

June 2003

What are "Action-Forcing Mechanisms" or Deadlines?

"Broadway theatre musicians are set to go on strike unless a deal on the size of their orchestras can be resolved on Thursday." -- BBC News, March 2, 2003.

Action-forcing mechanisms are external events or stipulations created in the course of negotiation or mediation, that are designed to force parties to take steps toward reaching or implementing an agreement." According to negotiation experts Michael Watkins and Susan Rosegrant,

Action-forcing events are clear breakpoints [in negotiation], imposed by outside forces or by the actions of negotiators, that force some or all of the participants to make hard choices or incur substantial costs.[1]

Deadlines are classic examples of action-forcing mechanisms, and are the most common way to manipulate time in order to induce a settlement. They may "delineate the period of time in which an agreement must be reached,"[2] or may "specify the date and time by which actions must be taken."[3] Deadlines may be necessary because a party is purposely using stall tactics to delay reaching agreement. Deadlines may also be incorporated into agreements to ensure that parties do what they are supposed to do to carry out an agreement's conditions. [4]

Sometimes, the goal of setting a deadline is to break a stalemate or deadlock in which parties are not willing or able to work out an agreement.[5] The longer parties remain deadlocked, the more likely it is that any trust they have developed will break down. Given this, it is best to take steps toward breaking the deadlock as soon as possible.[6] Deadlines can also help force parties to start working in a more constructive manner toward resolution. However, setting hasty deadlines can be dangerous as parties may come up with an agreement that is impossible to implement, because they were rushing to get it done. [7]

Types of Deadlines

There are many different types of deadlines. The most effective ones tend to have negative consequences associated with failing to meet them. [8] The consequences do not have to be severe, but they should present a worse option than settlement. The two most basic choices associated with negotiation deadlines are to come to an agreement, or to terminate the negotiation altogether. Often, both parties will lose if the negotiation is terminated, so avoiding this sort of consequence motivates the parties to work better together. In other cases, deadlines are merely used as "mileposts" to measure progress and do not involve serious consequences. [9]

Deadlines may be set up by a variety of actors. A party can set its own deadline (internal) or the deadline may be imposed by outside forces (external). An internal deadline might be set by either a mediator or one of the parties who can threaten to quit before the issue is resolved if the parties do not make progress or come to an agreement by a specified date or time. An example of an externally established deadline is an upcoming court date, which often encourages settlement between parties that really do not want to go to court. [10] Actual deadlines align with real events such as an election, and are rigid. They cannot be changed and therefore the cost of not reaching agreement is high. Artificial deadlines are arbitrarily set, just to force progress on an issue. These deadlines may be more flexible, though if they are completely changeable, they are meaningless. [11]

As noted above, deadlines usually promote settlements because they imply negative consequences if the time limit is not met. Explicitly defined deadlines with clear consequences can help motivate a fast solution. However, they can cause resistance and/or bad agreements if there is not enough time to consider all options. Explicit deadlines work well when both sides will suffer equally by not meeting them. [12]

Undefined deadlines can be effective because they make parties think that the negotiator is willing to spend as long as necessary to reach agreement. For example, if you are willing to negotiate for longer than your opponent, he may give in to your demands as time becomes scarce for him. [13] Alternatively, he may make concessions and act faster, because he doesn't want to incur the costs of delaying.

The "Deadline/Eleventh Hour Effect"

Many settlements are reached just before a deadline, a phenomenon called "the deadline effect" or "the eleventh hour effect." This refers to the common occurrence of parties waiting until the last hours before the deadline to make concessions, hoping the other side will concede first. But if that doesn't happen, then both sides begin serious negotiating right before the deadline, as they still think that an agreement is superior to none. An approaching deadline may prompt a party to change the bottom line of what they are willing to accept, making an agreement possible when it was not possible before (see ZOPA).

The deadline effect sometimes leads parties to alter their goals. Initially, parties may have competitive, individualistic goals. The need to meet a deadline encourages disputants to put aside their individualistic concerns and reach agreement. This change of heart may occur because the party does not want to lose out on the possible benefits of a cooperative group agreement. [14] However, individualistic actions prior to the deadline can cause problems. If competitive concerns are revealed only when the group is near agreement, these can derail the process. [15] To avoid this problem, it is best to make sure that individual concerns are openly discussed long before the deadline. Another option is to set a flexible deadline, which can be extended if the parties become serious about negotiating near the end of the time limit. But if they are still deadlocked, the deadline can be kept necessary. [16]

[1] Michael Watkins and Susan Rosegrant, Breakthrough International Negotiation: How Great Negotiators Transformed The World's Toughest Post-Cold War Conflicts (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 2001), 123.

[2] Christopher Moore, The Mediation Process: Practical Strategies for Resolving Conflict, 2nd Edition (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1996), 291. Pages 291-300 of this work present an in-depth discussion of deadlines and time constraints. The author discusses the mediator's role in manipulating deadlines, the associated dangers, and strategies for avoiding them.

[3] Heidi Burgess and Guy M. Burgess, Encyclopedia of Conflict Resolution (Denver: ABC-CLIO, 1997), 92.

[4] Ibid, 92.

[5] Michael Watkins and Susan Rosegrant, op cit.

[6] Susan L. Carpenter and W.J.D. Kennedy, Managing Public Disputes (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1988), 267.

[7] Lawrence Susskind and Jeffrey Cruikshank, Breaking the Impasse: Consensual Approaches to Resolving Public Disputes (New York: Basic Books, Inc., Publishers, 1987), 191

[8] Heidi Burgess and Guy M. Burgess, Encyclopedia of Conflict Resolution (Denver: ABC-CLIO, 1997), 92.

[9] Christopher Moore, The Mediation Process: Practical Strategies for Resolving Conflict, 2nd Edition (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1996), 299.

[10] Ibid, 292.

[11] Ibid, 293.

[12] Ibid, 294.

[13] Ibid, 294.

[14] Roy J. Lewicki and others, Negotiation, 3rd Edition (San Francisco: Irwin McGraw-Hill, 1999), 430.

[15] Ibid, 430.

[16] Ibid, 431.

Use the following to cite this article:
Spangler, Brad. "Action-Forcing Mechanisms." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: June 2003 <>.

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