Breaking the Paradox of False Consensus: A Journey to Better Decision-Making
Home 5 Blogs 5 Breaking the Paradox of False Consensus: A Journey to Better Decision-Making
Breaking the Paradox of False Consensus: A Journey to Better Decision-Making
Home 5 Blogs 5 Breaking the Paradox of False Consensus: A Journey to Better Decision-Making

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Have you ever heard of the Abilene Paradox? This happens when everybody agrees to
do something that nobody wants to do. Today, we will discuss how to avoid this situation in your organization.

Jerry B. Harvey wrote “The Abilene Paradox: The Management of Agreement” years ago. He named it that because of an incident in his family where they drove 50 miles each way across the desert in an unconditioned car during very hot, dusty weather from Coleman to Abilene, Texas, for dinner even though no one wanted to go. They all agreed to go because they thought everyone else wanted to go. They were too polite.

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I remembered the Abilene Paradox because of something that happened to me recently. I had plans with some friends a couple of weekends ago. However, as the weekend approached, I didn’t fancy going. I decided to bow out and text the group to let them know.

As soon as my text landed, the return texts came back with many other people thanking me for saying something because they couldn’t or didn’t want to go either. I wondered who made the plan in the first place since none of us wanted to go.

I also remember sitting in meetings where the boss suggested something that was not a good idea. Of course, no one said anything because the boss is the boss. No one wanted to be the one who challenged the boss and looked stupid for doing so. The danger here is that an organization can end up in a bad place following along like this.

Other reasons we find ourselves in this situation aren’t about being polite, particularly at work. Some people end up here by avoiding conflict. Others find themselves on the road to Abilene because they don’t want to suffer the consequences of rocking the boat, from being labeled as a negative team member to getting sacked. Another reason is that the team has poor communication systems.

So, What Should You Do To Avoid the Road to Abilene?

We have probably ended up in an Abilene Paradoxical situation at one time or another. That’s the bad news.

The good news is that there are many ways to manage it, the most essential of which is quality leadership and a sound communication process for voicing opinions. Here are a few ways to make that happen:

  • Recognize how often this can happen. The Abilene paradox occurs when your group is too polite and doesn’t want to hurt anybody else’s feelings by expressing a contrary opinion. It can also result from toxic reasons, like bad leadership or poor communication.
  • Get comfortable in your skin. When I started managing people, I thought I had to have all the answers, which was stressful because I didn’t. Over time, I realized it was okay not to have all the answers. My job was to get the answers. If you are the one in the leadership position, remember that you don’t have to know the solution; you have to understand how to get to the solution by leveraging the talents and skills of the group.

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  • Ensure that you are facilitating alternate views. You can do that by assigning somebody to be the devil’s advocate, to argue against what the group is leaning towards. You can also have a rule that a decision is only possible once a condition is met, like having at least two alternatives or until the group has completed a pros and cons list on the solution at hand. Having these discussions or rules helps the group slow down and have time to communicate rather than rush to a solution, even if nobody’s speaking out against it initially.
  • Include the whole team. The onus to get full participation from the team falls to the leader. The team leader should ensure everybody’s contributing and has an equal voice, even those who are usually quiet. Find ways to invite them to contribute that allow them to share their views.

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  • Diversification also helps. Having a team with different experiences helps avoid this situation. The various viewpoints introduce different perspectives into the discussion. If the group is too homogeneous, you risk polarizing to the extreme, one way or the other. Having people with different opinions helps move the solution to the middle.
  • Creating a safe environment for questions and discussion is also essential. If you make a person feel stupid for asking a question or repeatedly criticize a person’s contributions, the other people in the room will notice. They will learn not to ask or speak up for fear of being on the business end of that ridicule and rebuke.
  • Find a way to move the discussion forward. To be clear, sometimes the question is dumb, or the suggestion is ridiculous. The leader’s job is to establish that acknowledging and punishing these transgressions is not allowed. Then, it is essential to have ways to move forward. For example, you might respond to a dull question with something like “I like how you are thinking about the specifics. Can we take a step back from that level of detail and appreciate the bigger picture that creates this problem ultimately?” With a suggestion that won’t work, you could say something like, “I like the way you are thinking. While I don’t think that would work here, we are moving in the right direction. Does anyone else want to add to that suggestion?”

The Abilene Paradox often happens because everyone is going along to get along. The problem is that by trying not to offend anybody else, everybody is offended by a meeting no one wants to have or an outing that no one wants to attend.

So, to avoid finding oneself on the road to Abilene at work, leadership needs to get comfortable with not knowing what to do at all times. Also, learning to create an environment where the team can discuss solutions together rather than mindlessly following the leader is crucial. Finally, leadership must draw out the input of all the team members, not just the loudest voices in the room.

Thanks for reading, we appreciate you! Get access to your free ebook here, and why not tell a friend?

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