IF A WHOLE GROUP DOES IT, IT CAN SPELL DISASTER. HERE’S HOW TO AVOID THE ABILENE PARADOX.
By Steve Schumacher
A number of years ago, I was asked to observe a meeting that was being led by a regional vice president. The agenda was for the group to decide how to improve the safety record in the region. The VP led a great deal of discussion, with a lot of ideas being thrown out and discussed.
After about two hours of discussion and no conclusion being reached, the VP said, “Why don’t we try giving money to people who go a year with no lost-time accidents?” There was silence in the room for about 10 seconds, then people started agreeing with the suggestion, stating “That’s a great idea,” “I wish I had thought of that, boss,” and “That’s the best idea yet.”
Even though there were a lot of words of agreement, my sense of the body language in the room was that the people in the room disagreed with the VP’s idea.
When the meeting was over, I met with the VP to debrief my observations. I asked him what he thought about how the group responded to his suggestion of paying money for safety. He said, “I just threw it out to stimulate discussion, I really don’t think we want to go down that road.”
He continued, “But, since they all pretty much liked the idea, I guess we should do it.” I asked him to hold off on making plans to implement his idea so I could interview the people in the meeting who seemingly agreed with his idea.
Over the course of 10 days, I interviewed all of the people in the meeting, and absolutely none of them thought the idea of paying money for safety was a good one. They just went along because they thought everyone else liked the idea. I reported this back to the VP and he put a stop to the plan.
That experience validated what Dr. Jerry Harvey calls the “Abilene Paradox.” The dynamics of the Abilene Paradox involve people privately thinking one thing but acting out something very different because they aren’t sharing their real opinions. The publication of Harvey’s personal set of observations back in the 1980s, raised the awareness that it is just as important to manage agreement, as it is to manage conflict in an organization.
Such situations commonly occur in the workplace because of the many consequences that may be associated with breaking ranks – possible loss of promotions, embarrassment in front of a superior, or simply earning the reputation that one is “not a team player.”
As a result, employees are more willing to conform to an idea they do not agree with than to assert their opinion and risk being criticized. And while this can be a complex problem, it can be handled through effective communication.
Anonymous ideas. At the beginning of a brainstorming session, instead of asking everyone to shout out their ideas, or commit to an idea verbally, have them write down their ideas anonymously on a sheet of paper.
Collect the ideas, write them on a flipchart or whiteboard, then start discussing each idea on its merit. That way, you will have collected everyone’s ideas without them having the fear of being criticized.
Anonymous voting. Another way to keep the Abilene Paradox at bay is to have everyone vote on ideas anonymously. Once the ideas are generated, ask everyone to vote on each without letting it be known what votes were cast by whom.
It is at this decision making point where people may feel the most pressure to conform, so tread lightly and encourage openness and honesty.
Tell everyone about the Abilene Paradox. Make it known to all members of your team that this is real and occurs in all organizations, at all levels.
Explain the downsides of it happening and that if you, as a leader, are creating circumstances that make people feel pressure to go along, that you want to do whatever it takes to change the culture. Having an outside, objective person observe your meetings can help this process.
Let everyone know that positive change comes from diverse, honest input. Going along to “not rock the boat” limits what the company is capable of. Reward employees that take a risk and let their true opinions be known in public. You, the team, and the company will reap untold benefits when you do.