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Breaking Out of Groupthink

Have you ever been trapped in the frustration of a meeting that was not functioning well? Have you sat in a meeting where you did not speak your mind because you knew the risk, or the futility of it? Perhaps you have suffered through more bad meetings than you participated in useful ones. Have you ever sat in a meeting where nothing of value was accomplished, and it seemed like a terrible waste of time, yours and everyone else’s? Reflecting on it later, did you wonder what it was that caused the teams to be so ineffective?

The situations that lead to these nonworking meetings tend to fall into three categories:

1. We are so sure that everyone is in agreement that we don’t want to be the lone dissenting voice.
2. Our team has always been “right.” We have been on the cutting edge for as long as anyone can remember — therefore we must be “right” now.
3. The boss says we must — therefore we must.

After biting our tongues through these exasperating meetings, the next thing we know, something blows up — figuratively or literally — and we berate ourselves for not having said something. What causes this ineffective — actually, dysfunctional — behavior, and how do we stop it? To understand this problem, let’s examine a relevant scenario.

Scenario: The Abilene Paradox

Your boss recently heard about a great new technology. At a meeting, he asks if that system would accelerate a project that is already behind schedule. Your gut tells you this is a bad idea, but no one else seems troubled. Moreover, the undercurrent you believe you heard was, “We must do it.” Good money is thrown after bad, trying to blend this new technology into the floundering project. As time goes on, it gets harder to bring it to the attention of your boss. Finally, when all is lost, the project is scrapped. During the post mortem, the truth comes out — everyone had seen the writing on the wall, but had relied on everyone else’s “good sense” and opted to go along with what they believed was the majority. Jerry Harvey, author of The Abilene Paradox and Other Meditations on Management, captures this behavior in the story of Abilene.

The parable of the Abilene Paradox is a short story about Harvey’s family living in west Texas in the early ’60s. Four adults (Jerry, his wife and his in-laws) are sitting on a porch in 104-degree heat in the small town of Coleman, Texas, some 53 miles from Abilene. They are engaging in as little motion as possible, drinking lemonade and playing dominoes. At some point, his father-in-law suggests they drive to Abilene to eat at a cafeteria there. Jerry thinks this is a crazy idea, but everyone else seems to want to go, so he agrees that it sounds like a good idea. They get in their family car, which lacks air conditioning, and drive through a dust storm to Abilene. They eat a mediocre lunch at the cafeteria and return to Coleman exhausted, hot and generally unhappy with the experience. It is not until they are back home that it is revealed that none of them really wanted to go to Abilene — they were just going along because they thought all the others were eager to go.

Harvey used this wonderfully simple parable to illustrate what he believes is a major symptom of organizational dysfunction. He warns of the dangers of “management of agreement” — as opposed to management of disagreement or conflict.

His unique perspective shows us how we do not engage in deep inquiry or self-disclosure when attempting to come to a consensus with others. If we are certain that everyone else is in agreement, we do not express our own conflicting opinion.