So, We All Agree?… Really?

Here’s the scenario.

You call a meeting to discuss a project. You gain full agreement from everyone on how you’re going to proceed. You adjourn the meeting feeling good about having been successful at getting everyone “on side“. And then you hear people on their way out of the room saying something like, “I’m really not sure this will work, but everyone else seemed to think it was a good idea so I went along”?

Ever happen to you?

Believe it or not, this particular frustration actually has a name.  It’s called The Abilene Paradox

The Abilene Paradox was introduced by Jerry B. Harvey.  It is essentially a story that demonstrates what can happen if we are not candid in sharing our views and opinions.  Here’s the quick version:

Four people are sitting comfortably on the porch of their home in Coleman, Texas.  One suddenly suggests that they take a trip to Abilene (which is about fifty miles north), for dinner.  A second one considers that the trip will be long and hot but doesn’t want to be the one to pour cold water on the idea and so agrees. A third simply says that it sounds like a great idea and when doubt is cast upon the willingness of the fourth person to go, this person responds indignantly with “of course I want to go!”

And so they pile into the car.  It is a hot and dusty trip.  When they arrive at the restaurant in Abilene, they order and eat a very mediocre meal after which they pile into the car again for the long and hot trip home.

When they arrive home, they are all exhausted. One admits that she would rather have stayed home.  This surprises the second one who confesses that the only reason he suggested it was because he thought the rest of the group might otherwise be bored. And, as the truth began to unfurl they learned that the trip they had just taken was one that no one really wanted take.

Sounds pretty implausible doesn’t it?  But it happens.

So, when you are sitting in a meeting with a bunch of other people, determining what course of action to take, what can you do to make sure that you’re  getting the benefit of authentic views and opinions?

Here are some of my thoughts about that:

  • You can conduct meetings on the principle that “nobody gets to be wrong”.

This doesn’t mean, by the way, that you have to agree with everything everyone says.  It only means that if someone has something to say, they can feel confident that whatever it is, will not be instantly discounted or in any way disparaged.

  • You can  appoint someone who is willing to be “devil’s Advocate” for the meeting.

The role of the devil’s advocate is to purposely bring up issues that might be at odds with the popular trend.  Often these are things that some people are thinking anyway but are reticent to bring out.

  • You can share the “Abilene Paradox” anecdote with meeting participants before a meeting actually starts.  This, in addition to establishing other operating principles for the time participants are together, makes for an environment where people can feel comfortable speaking their minds.
  • In addition to the “devil’s Advocate”, you can include the “voices” of the client, the employee and the shareholder.  This often gives the propositions being tabled, a multi-dimensional perspective that ensures that all parties are heard from and the chances of “going to Abilene” are negligible.

The Abiliene Paradox points out to me that it is just as important to manage agreement as it is to manage disagreement.

What do you think?



Filed under Building Relationships, Establishing Direction, managing paradox

4 responses to “So, We All Agree?… Really?

  1. Seems to me the Abilene Paradox is a big source of the disgruntled water cooler conversations – you know those meetings after the meeting where everyone says what they really think? The reasons why people don’t speak up can be complex, but you point out some really good ways to encourage people to share their dissenting views.

    You make a really great point about managing agreement being as important as managing disagreement. It is ironic that we can be so focused on preventing disagreement (i.e. “playing nice”) that we actually derail our ability to reach an authentic agreement.

  2. Important concept to be wary of. I hadn’t heard of the “Abilene Paradox”. In my work, I’ve nicknamed an reated problem “Gratuitous Agreement”. This is a sibling of the Abilene Paradox in which people in a meeting, with diverse roles and points-of-view, agree emphatically about a topic – agreeing on the words used (syntax) but thinking about the topic in very different terms (semantics) and therefore expecting very different actions and outcomes. “But I thought we agreed that you would be building a Widget!’ “That’s what we built!”, etc.

  3. Tip for avoiding the Abilene Paradox:
    Make sure you ask the quietest people in the room what they really think after the extroverts have vented. (Related to the “nobody gets to be wrong” principle.

    Tip for avoiding Gratuitous Agreement:
    Regardless of impatience and protests to the contrary, take the time, early in a project, to write down the definitions of terms and concepts, explicitly, with all present: It’s amazing how the simple act of building a glossary can surface latent differences in points-of-view, depth of understanding and priorities.

  4. prissyperfection

    Susan, yes, I remember those water cooler conversations (even when there was no water cooler in sight!). And you’re right. The reasons people fail to speak up are often many and varied. Therein lies the challenge 🙂 Thanks for your usual insightful comments.

    Trevor, you make a great point. There are indeed times when people agree to something, only to discover that their interpretation of that something is different from another person’s interpretation. So, it is really important to get clarity on exactly what you’re agreeing on in a very specific way.
    Thanks for your comments and suggestions ! 🙂

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