On my birthday a couple of years back, I wanted to take my family out for dinner. I asked my wife where we can go. Knowing that I like Gujarati food, she immediately said: “Let’s go to Agashiye – The Terrace Restaurant.”
My son and daughter both nodded in agreement. On return my son said: “I wish Pappa had taken us to Mainland China – he loves Chinese food.” “Or at least to Shere-E-Punjab for the wonderful tandoori chicken” added my daughter. “Yes, I too would have loved to go Mainland China”, I said.
My wife looked surprised: “But didn’t we all unanimously agree to go to Agashiye” she asked.
I said sheepishly “I didn’t want you to feel bad.” And both my children nodded in agreement. Here were four people who of their own volition would not have gone to ‘Agashiye – The Terrace Restaurant, but collectively agreed to go there.
This also happens in the corporate world. This is the Abilene Paradox. This term was coined by Prof. Jerry Harvey who calls it “The Inability to Manage Agreement”.
Abilene Paradox occurs when a group of people collectively decide on a course of action that is contrary to the preferences of many of the individuals in the group.
Prof. Harvey states in his paper ‘The Abilene Paradox’: “Organizations frequently take actions in contradiction to what they really want to do and therefore defeat the very purpose they are trying to achieve”. This is the inability to manage agreement.
He adds: “The inability to manage agreement, not the inability to manage conflict, is the essential symptom that defines organizations caught in the web of the Abilene Paradox.”
In the corporate world, when the top boss throws an idea, the group immediately agrees. This is because everyone in the group thinks he would look stupid if he disagrees. Standing out as a lone voice is very embarrassing. This leads the group to decide on ‘yes’ when ‘no’ would have been the personal (and the correct) response of the majority.
I love this from Ayn Rand: “If we have an endless number of individual minds who are weak, meek, submissive and impotent – who renounce their creative supremacy for the sake of the “whole” and accept humbly the ‘whole’s verdict’ – we don’t get a collective super-brain. We get only the weak, meek, submissive and impotent collective mind.”
The `Abilene Paradox’ plagues Pharma India too, severely.
A very strong leader with excellence in communication skills may cause this to happen. Because the speaker is so convincing and his personality driving, voices of dissent are silenced. He may present his case so forcefully, that rather than be conspicuously different or cause difficulties; people decide to just go along with it. They are avoiding the anxiety of voicing a different viewpoint. This can lead to dangerous situations. Managers will continue to say `Yes’ when they want to say `No’ for the fear of being isolated or labeled as a rebel.
This paradox can be pre-empted by true and authentic leadership. It requires a leader with a different caliber and courage to lead such a group into a different direction, where non-conformity is not acceptable. Such a leader will confront the group and even the person who throws the original idea, with what they have already agreed upon. This true leader will make people forget the previously agreed upon facts. Bringing these up causes people to reconsider, and could render the change in direction needed for a turnaround.
A young manager, who truly wants to make a mark, should have the courage to stand up and speak what he senses as correct.
In fact by doing this, he is respecting himself and is telling the world that he is a significant person.
Robert Frost wrote:
“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I…
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.”
The path less travelled is one the one which requires courage to say ‘No’ when it is required to say ‘No’.
“Most of the great cultural shifts – ones that have built great organizations that sustain long-term growth, prosperity and contribution to the world – started with the choice of one person.”
No CEO worth his salt wants his organization going the Abilene Paradox way. He knows that the Abilene Paradox can hurt his company.
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