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Once & For All: Stopping Sexual Harassment at Work

The Abilene Paradox – How you can skip the trip!

confroomIn our first article of this series, we learned how a family trip to Abilene on a 104-degree Texas afternoon led Professor Jerry Harvey to discover what he calls “The Abilene Paradox.” The paradox occurs when groups take actions in contradiction to what the individual members really want to do. Remember that Professor Harvey described the Abilene Paradox as the inability to manage agreement rather than the inability to manage conflict.

We’ve also explored six tell-tale signs that will help us recognize when we might be on a” trip to Abilene” and four underlying psychological dynamics that create the conditions for the Paradox. The question is…what do we do about it?

If we believe our group or organization is caught in the Paradox – and is “on the road to Abilene” –Professor Harvey recommends we speak up and confront the Paradox in a group setting. Working within the context of a group is important, because the dynamics of the Abilene Paradox involve collusion among group members.

The first step in the confrontation is to “own up” to our true beliefs and be open to the feedback we receive when we share them. By owning up, we let others know we’re concerned that the group may be making a decision based on inaccurate data. To illustrate this, let’s revisit this workplace scenario (from article two).

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).

Here’s an example of how one of them might confront the Paradox:
“I want to talk with you all about the proposed procedural change. Although I have previously said things to support the change, I frankly don’t think it will work, and I am very anxious about it. I suspect some of you may feel the same way. Anyway, I’m concerned that I may end up misleading you and we may end up misleading one another. If we’re not careful, we may continue implementing this change that I fear we don’t all want and that might even cost us a tremendous amount of wasted time and money. That’s why I need to know where the rest of you stand. I would appreciate any of your thoughts about the proposed change. Do you think it will succeed?”

What can we expect when we decide to speak up and confront the Paradox? If we’ve misdiagnosed the situation and there is no Paradox operating in the group, then, by speaking up, we can introduce significant discussion and debate. Properly managed, such group debate can be the basis for creative problem solving. However –and here’s where we do assume a little bit of risk–there is also the possibility that the conflict cannot be properly managed and we are ostracized (or worse…in extreme cases).

However, if we have correctly diagnosed that the Paradox is operating in the group, the result of speaking up is absurdly quick and simple. You are likely to hear one or more fellow group members say something like…
“Do you mean that you and I and the rest of us have been pushing through this procedure change when none of us believe it will work? That’s nuts! How about we let that idea go and figure out a better way to solve our problem?”

Of course, to fully rid a workplace of the Abilene Paradox, group leaders (like Chris, the manager in the scenario above) must create a climate that encourages employees to speak freely and share their honest opinions. That’s what we’ll cover in our next (and final) post.

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 fourth in a series of articles to be posted on the Abilene Paradox and how organizations can skip the trip.

Reference: Jerry B. Harvey, “The Abilene Paradox: The Mismanagement of Agreement”, originally published in Organizational Dynamics.


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