In 1974, Dr. Jerry Harvey and three other family members embarked on a 53-mile road trip to Abilene, Texas in a 1958 Buick without any air-conditioning. Not only was the temperature a scorching 40 degree Celsius, but the entire drive was through a dust storm! It was only when they returned home at the end of the day that they discovered that nobody actually wanted to go to Abilene, Texas. It turned out that each person only agreed to go because they thought the other people really wanted to go. Dr. Harvey said later: “Here we were, four reasonable sensible people who, on our own volitions, had just taken a 106 mile trip across the godforsaken desert in furnace-like temperatures through a cloud-like dust storm to eat unpalatable food at a hole-in-the-wall cafeteria in Abilene, Texas, when none of us really wanted to go! In fact, to be more accurate, we had done just the opposite of what we really wanted to do.” Today, the “Abilene Paradox” is used to describe any communication breakdown situation in which members of group don’t want to “rock the boat”. In their desire to minimize conflict, each mistakenly believes that his or her own preferences are counter to the group and therefore does not raise any objections.
The Abilene Paradox serves to underline the importance of creating a work climate where healthy conflict is welcomed and encouraged. One suggestion – as the manager or supervisor, play the role of devil’s advocate – take a position you don’t necessarily agree with just for the sake of argument.
So what are you doing to foster such an environment on your team? Please … share your specific ideas.