A Trip to Abilene

There are times when leaders do not believe their teams are taking a trip to Abilene. The tall tale signs are “we just all get along or we go with the flow”.

Take a hard look if this describes your situation. The trip is brutal in more ways than one.

The Abilene Paradox and Other Meditations on Management by Jerry B. Harvey highlights how faulty decisions may arise within a group. It occurs when everyone assumes other members of the group are in agreement with a particular outcome, yet on an individual basis they do not agree.

The story is set in Texas. It is about a family who takes a car trip to Abilene on a hot 107° summer day without any air conditioning. After driving 51 miles each way; four plus hours later they return home. Exhausted, each of them reflect on how they did not want to take the trip in the first place, but did so because they thought everyone else wanted to go.

The group was not in conflict, they simply failed to manage agreement effectively. And for that reason, they suffered.

Groups and organizations take the trip to Abilene every day. Today, a group I was working with began to realize just how many trips they were taking to Abilene. How to you recognize it, why does it happen and how do you prevent it?

Are you getting ready to take a trip to Abilene?

Ask some simple questions to see if your group is loading up the car to Abilene. The ideal situation is for someone outside of your group to facilitate this process. In steps 1 and 2, speak to each person separately, away from the group.

Step 1 – Ask if they agree on the problem.

Step 2 – Ask what steps they will take to deal with the problem.

If individuals answer differently, move the final step. Bring the group together.

Step 3 – Observe how the group decides how to solve the problem.. Do individuals in the group communicate openly about their ideas and beliefs with each other?

If not, pack your bags, it appears your group is on the way to Abilene.

What are the signs of being on a trip to Abilene?

You may have already determined your group is enroute. If so, clear signs include, the lack of employee involvement, missing project deadlines, decreasing profitability and errors due to miscommunication. The group or organization will witness rising levels of blaming and scapegoating, leading to frustration. This cycle continues to repeat itself until the group learns to communicate their opinions more effectively with each other.

Why don’t people speak up?

There are many reasons why group members do not speak up. Some of them include:

Action Anxiety

There is anxiety in expressing your real beliefs for fear that someone else will think judge you harshly.

Negative Fantasies

We often think about the worse case scenario, believing if we carry something, it will cause pain or harm.

Our negative fantasy only reinforces our action anxiety. Ultimately, it provides us an excuse for not taking action.

Fear of Separation

A person fears separation, such as termination or shunned by the group for taking a risky action.

Real Risk

Risk is unavoidable; every day we face it. Understanding the real threat of risk is a tougher question to answer. Is risk possible – the answer will always be “yes”. The more appropriate question is to ask is – is it probable.

Psychological Reversal of risk and certainty

The irony is – if we let the threat of risk and negative fantasies get in our way of speaking up in the decision process, our inaction may lead to the negative outcomes we are trying to avoid.

Ways to prevent a trip to Abilene

Make sure you have the right people in the group, if not, invite them in. It is important to have the right skills, knowledge and understand the stakeholder’s expected outcomes to make a good decision.

Allow for plenty of discussion time. If people feel pressure to make a decision quickly, they may decide to hold back their point of view.

Identify the decision and results are expected.

Get the facts ahead of time. Develop options and analyze the impact of your decision.

Share your experiences with taking or getting off the road to Abilene. If your group is continually making the trip, give me a call.

  1. Lynn,
    A step beyond just agreeing on a direction, project, etc. is a test for commitment. Each person gets a private vote. They write down a number from 0 to 10 with 0 = no commitment and 10 = highest commitment. If the average isn’t 8 or above then strong commitment isn’t there. Any votes of 0,1, or 2 must open the floor for additional discussion.
    Jim B.
    P.S. My web site is due up in a couple of weeks.

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