In our previous article we wrote about a humorous family “trip to Abilene” and the concept of the Abilene Paradox. We also discussed
how the Paradox affects us in both our personal and work lives. Today, we’ll explore six tell-tale symptoms of the Paradox.
Remember that professor Jerry Harvey described the Abilene Paradox as the inability to manage agreement rather than the inability to manage conflict. This inability to manage agreement is the essential symptom that defines individuals and organizations caught in the web of the Abilene Paradox.
Consider this workplace scenario:
Sue, Tony, Jasmine and their manager, Chris, all have strong reservations about implementing a proposed procedural change. Individually, each one is convinced the change will cause more problems than it will solve. BUT, because the proposed change was suggested by a highly-paid consultant, and because no one else is voicing their concerns, each individual claims to support the plan (when they really don’t). The procedural change goes forward…seemingly with unanimous consent. Later, when troubling operational issues surface, the group members get annoyed with one another and blame the consultant for giving bad advice. Eventually—despite a hefty investment in the flawed new procedure—the organization decides to go back to the old way of doing things. Susan, Tony, Jasmine and Chris never discuss the matter again.
So…what are the signs that this group has “gone to Abilene”?
1) The group agreed privately, as individuals, as to the nature of the situation or problem they faced –each believed the proposed procedural change would most likely fail.
2) The group agreed privately, as individuals, as to the steps that would be required to cope with the situation or problem they faced – no one wanted to make the change.
3) The group members failed to accurately communicate their true desires and/or beliefs to one another. In fact, they did just the opposite –they each gave their support to the plan–thereby leading one another into misperceiving the collective reality.
4) The group used invalid and inaccurate information and decided to take action contrary to what they really wanted to do. The group’s inaccurate assumption that everyone was on board led them to act on a plan no one felt was in the best interest of the company.
5) The group experienced frustration, anger and dissatisfaction with one another… and ultimately resorted to blaming the consultant.
6) The group never dealt with the underlying issue – their own failure to manage agreement – so the cycle will most likely repeat itself on future decisions. They will find themselves taking repeated “trips to Abilene.”
Like all paradoxes, the Abilene Paradox deals with absurdity. Paradoxes are paradoxes because they are based on a logic different from what we understand…or expect. In our next article we’ll develop a roadmap to help recognize when we are on the “road to Abilene” so we can skip the trip.
About the author: Peter J. Jordan is President and CEO of CRM Learning. He directed the original Abilene Paradox video and was Executive Producer of the revised version. This is the second in a series of articles to be posted on the Abilene Paradox and how organizations can “skip the trip”.
Reference: “The Abilene Paradox: The Management of Agreement” by Jerry B. Harvey. Organizational Dynamics magazine.