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Avoiding the ‘Abilene paradox’

Sometimes agreement can be just as dangerous as conflict

By Brian Kreissl

While we are all aware of the problems caused by conflict in organizations, we don’t hear nearly as often about potential problems caused by people publicly agreeing with a decision, even though they privately disagree with it. This is referred to as the “Abilene paradox.”

At first glance, the phenomenon would appear to be very similar to the concept of groupthink, which is a situation where highly cohesive groups begin to think and act with one voice and stifle dissenting thoughts and opinions. However, many experts argue that with groupthink, people aren’t actually agreeing to something they don’t believe in, whereas with the Abilene paradox people will actually agree to something they personally don’t buy into.

Often the desire is to keep the peace or avoid being seen to actively work against organizational “sacred cows” such as pet projects, products or lines of business near and dear to the hearts of the senior leadership team. People will frequently continue to pursue certain agendas long after they have personally given up believing in them.

Supposedly, the Abilene paradox was named after the town of Abilene in Texas. It relates to a time when a family in another town decided to take a long road trip to Abilene on a hot, dusty night in order to have dinner at a cafeteria.

It wasn’t until after they returned that everyone found out no one had actually wanted to go to Abilene in the first place. The drive was long and hot and the food wasn’t particularly good, but no one spoke up to say they didn’t actually feel like going there until after they had returned.

Everyone was so concerned with keeping the peace they didn’t speak up for fear of disappointing the others. The problem was no one even wanted to go, although they all assumed the others did.

This little case study is often used as an illustration of the need for organizations to be able to manage agreement (as opposed to managing conflict). A number of different lessons can be learned from this story based on the many different factors that can lead to “dysfunctional agreement” in organizations.

Conflict avoidance

For one thing, the Abilene paradox can be caused by an organization having a culture that’s obsessed with avoiding conflict and disagreement. I personally have encountered one or two organizations where the culture actively discouraged just about all conflict and people were afraid to speak up or mention “the elephant in the room.”

While conflict is usually recognized as being a negative issue, organizations should encourage a healthy amount of conflict in order to solve problems. Conflict can actually be harnessed in a positive way to bring things out in the open and gain a better understanding of people’s divergent interests, needs and perspectives.

Organizations should therefore encourage healthy debate and respectful dialogue among individuals and departments, even if it results in a certain amount of disaccord. HR can help by providing training and facilitation on effective conflict management (which should cover the dangers of dysfunctional agreement and ways to effectively harness conflict for better results).

Not feeling safe to speak up

To me, the Abilene paradox is also frequently caused by people not feeling safe to speak up. There are a number of reasons for this, including extremely hierarchical cultures, fear of being ridiculed for having different opinions and a belief that people’s opinions won’t be listened to anyway.

Another cause is when decisions are simply made based on the “HiPPO” — the highest paid person’s opinion. That was something I blogged about in an earlier post.

People who have had negative experiences when they spoke up often learn their lesson to simply shut their mouths. They will then decide to clam up even when their opinions are actively solicited, believing it isn’t worth it to say anything. This can have devastating consequences for organizations.

Again, HR can help by helping to create a culture where employees feel safe to speak up. Managers in particular need to know how to empower employees and encourage them to speak their minds.

Part of that is being respectful of different opinions and being careful not to automatically shoot down or ridicule suggestions they don’t agree with. It is also important to be seen to take employee’s suggestions seriously and champion them where they make sense — or respectfully explain why they might not work in other cases.

Brian Kreissl

Brian Kreissl is the product development manager for Thomson Reuters Legal Canada's human resources, OH&S, payroll and records retention products and solutions.
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