3 Ways to Avoid the Abilene Paradox
04 April 2019
Posted by: Abi Walker
Have you ever ended up agreeing to something that you felt really wasn’t the best idea?
It’s quite common, and has a name – it’s called the Abilene Paradox, from Jerry B. Harvey’s 1974 article The Abilene Paradox: The Management of Agreement.
"The Abilene Paradox refers to a situation when a group makes a collective decision that is counter to the thoughts and feelings of its individual members. The Abilene Paradox occurs because individuals do not want to ‘rock the boat’ or ‘be a killjoy,’ even though their perceptions of the other members’ feelings are incorrect." - HRZone
This is an important issue for anyone working towards an effective Agile culture, because Agile approaches rely on collaboration and are seriously undermined when people are not able to contribute fully.
Harvey illustrates his point with a story about a family who set off on an uncomfortably hot, unsuitable, and ultimately unsatisfying trip to have dinner 53 miles away. It turned out that everyone had agreed to it because they thought the others wanted to go, even though they themselves privately preferred to stay at home. After their return, the truth came out and ‘the group sits back, perplexed that they together decided to take a trip which none of them wanted.’
The point is that as individuals we tend to mistakenly believe that our opinion is in the minority and so we often choose not to voice our thoughts. When the group consensus appears to be saying “yes”, we start to feel uncomfortable about being the sole voice saying “no”.
Here are 3 ways to avoid the negative impact of the Abilene Paradox:
1. Create a safe environment
Think about it for a moment, who wants to be the party pooper, the kill-joy being accused of not being a team player just because they have a different opinion. Human beings are social animals and people generally yearn to feel that they ‘belong’ to a group. If someone appears as an outsider, the ability to empathise and try and understand that person drops. Relatedness is closely linked to trust, which is critical for close collaboration and the sharing of information.
So the first way to avoid the Abilene Paradox is for leaders to create an environment where people feel ‘safe’ to voice a divergent opinion. If we’ve been shouted down, ignored, or made to feel naïve in the past, we may not risk speaking out again.
2. Expect teams to disagree
If teams are built to provide a range of skills and to review issues from a variety of perspectives, it should be expected that they ‘disagree’. This is the value of a team. If it’s clear who will review the evidence and make the final decision, then disagreement should only enrich and validate the final outcome. Both sides of an argument need to be explored before one can be confidently supported – this is the essence of analysis.
3. Actively listen to feedback
When leaders demonstrate that they are listening to differing views, team members will feel valued and are more likely to have the confidence to contribute fully. Leaders should be prepared to take the time to communicate the reasons behind decisions. This can defuse potential areas of conflict before they are driven ‘underground’. If we can see conflict, we can help to resolve or manage it. False agreements made in organisations every day may have widespread and long-lasting impacts. People may mutter and grumble about “that’s the way things are around here” embedding a cynicism about the ability to change opinions or reverse decisions. Read our blog on Communication, Collaboration and Emotional Intelligence here.
Many leaders may be unaware of how they surround themselves with ‘yes-people’ or how the power of their personality may overwhelm people. It’s essential that people can provide the diverse opinions that may be needed for an organisation to break out of a slump or to make a meaningful difference in the marketplace. Leaders may say that they value other people’s opinions but then be quite shocked to discover that they have unwittingly given a covert message that disagreement will not be tolerated.
Leaders need to become more aware of the power of group dynamics and the effects that it has on the individuals in an organisation. If they can find a way to allow true dialogue in their organisation that encourages a spirit of inquiry in their teams and groups, this would allow differences of opinion to emerge, with a wider understanding of an issue from a variety of perspectives.
This releases the power to innovate that is central to an Agile philosophy.