Sitting in a faculty meeting last week, I realized I’d just been transported unwittingly to Abilene.
Abilene, Texas, that is.
Abilene in and of itself may be a fine place to visit (I’ve never been). But this particular type of trip to Abilene is one worth avoiding. It’s a form of groupthink known as the Abilene Paradox, made famous in The Abilene Paradox and Other Mediations on Management (affiliate link), a wonderful little late 1980s book by management professor Jerry Harvey. The gist of the story is this, as re-told in Wikipedia:
“On a hot afternoon visiting in Coleman, Texas, the family is comfortably playing dominoes on a porch, until the father-in-law suggests that they take a trip to Abilene [53 miles north] for dinner. The wife says, ‘Sounds like a great idea.’ The husband, despite having reservations because the drive is long and hot, thinks that his preferences must be out-of-step with the group and says, ‘Sounds good to me. I just hope your mother wants to go.’ The mother-in-law then says, ‘Of course I want to go. I haven’t been to Abilene in a long time.’
The drive is hot, dusty, and long. When they arrive at the cafeteria, the food is as bad. They arrive back home four hours later, exhausted.
One of them dishonestly says, ‘It was a great trip, wasn’t it.’ The mother-in-law says that, actually, she would rather have stayed home, but went along since the other three were so enthusiastic. The husband says, ‘I wasn’t delighted to be doing what we were doing. I only went to satisfy the rest of you.’ The wife says, ‘I just went along to keep you happy. I would have had to be crazy to want to go out in the heat like that.’ The father-in-law then says that he only suggested it because he thought the others might be bored.
The group sits back, perplexed that they together decided to take a trip which none of them wanted. They each would have preferred to sit comfortably, but did not admit to it when they still had time to enjoy the afternoon.”
Avoiding unwanted trips to Abilene, and the subsequent conflict, happens when you’ve cultivated a work environment in which individuals feel able to speak openly and honestly about their real opinions.
Does your institution or organization genuinely cultivate great team dynamics and dialogue?