Have you heard of Abilene? If you have (and you don’t actually live there!), it’s most likely because you know of the so-called Abilene paradox, a term coined by Jerry Harvey in 1974. If not, then here is a quick summary of that paradox.
One hot afternoon in Texas, a family is sitting on the porch, playing dominoes, when one of them suggests they go to Abilene for dinner – a good 50 miles away. One after the other agrees it is a good idea, but once they get there, the food is as bad as the hot, dusty drive. When they get home, they discover that, in fact, nobody actually wanted to go to Abilene. Everyone simply went along with what they thought the others wanted, and the person who first proposed it did so because he thought everyone else was bored.
This is a particularly pernicious example of groupthink. Not only does the strong desire to minimize conflict lead to a collective choice that is suboptimal, it produces an outcome that goes against the wishes of every single group member.
Management teams or project teams usually face different kinds of questions than whether or not to go somewhere, or to stay put. Groupthink can, however, distort any kind of decision. Which supplier should we use? Which project should we prioritize for funding? Should we acquire a company in Portugal, or start our own?
If no one in the team has a strong view – perhaps because nobody feels they have sufficient information – action bias is most likely going to get someone to make a suggestion. This immediately confers a certain authority on this person, and evidently nobody wants to be the first to question the only idea on offer – even if they can see things wrong with it. Instead people provide some superficial support. In the absence of any challenge, the idea gains more and more traction, and the team ends up in their metaphorical Abilene.
Abilene in the mirror
There is a mirror image of this situation, which is possibly even more worrying.
This can happen when there is no explicit big decision to be made on the table of our team, but there is a much vaguer, potential issue ahead. Perhaps there is persistent talk of new legislation or regulation that could interfere with the business or require considerable preparation. Maybe there is speculation that a company that is successful in a different market segment is considering expanding into your territory and become a fierce competitor, or a new technology that threatens our business model.
Such changes can be momentous, disruptive even. And we generally don’t like such changes – we don’t even like to think about them. That is why we sometimes reason that it is not necessary to pay attention to them. We engage in motivated reasoning.
We hear that we will need to prove that women and men are getting equal pay, but we think to ourselves, “It will never happen – it won’t be voted in, and it is impossible to police”. We read about the horrors of a ‘no-deal’ Brexit, but we wonder, “How bad could it really be? After all, things were fine before we were in the EU, no?” Or, if we do believe that the consequences of that outcome would be dramatic, we cannot believe that the government could possibly allow it to happen – and we ‘reason’ that someone, at some point will do something to prevent it. We know that other industries have been disrupted by upstart start-ups, but we can think of so many reasons why in our own industry that won’t be as easy by a long shot, so such threats “don’t really apply to us”. Just remember that Kodak actually had a patent on the digital camera.
We also see these changes as distant threats – nothing to worry about right now, when we have other pressing priorities. This is a form of hyperbolic discounting: we prefer putting effort now on matters that deliver immediate benefit rather than to work on stuff with uncertain benefits far in the future.
And most importantly, if it really were that big an issue, someone else would already have raised it, and things would have happened long ago. So nobody around the team table is putting their hand up. We keep quiet about it… and so does everyone else on the team. This is not entirely surprising. Recent research by Leslie K. John et al. , shows that we tend to “shoot the messenger” – we dislike people who give us bad news.
But we do end up with something like a reverse Abilene paradox: everybody would like to go to Abilene, but we stay put, playing dominoes on the porch. Everybody actually believes that the issue needs to be put on the agenda, but nobody brings it up. We bury our head in the sand, and because everyone else is, surely it is OK to do so? Individually we all think there’s something that might need action, but because we think nobody else does, the de facto collective team decision is to do nothing – against everyone’s wishes. When it comes to future concerns, we may well look like a team of ostriches*.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Thankfully, behavioural science doesn’t just give names to problems, it can also offer solutions.
Perhaps most important is to ensure a climate of psychological safety: make sure that people are not holding back from what feels like taking interpersonal risks. Speaking up in the team should be part of the team ethos, and everyone should act in accordance.
However, that may not happen overnight, and so more specific nudges may help surface concerns without exposing anyone who might feel uneasy doing so. In team meetings, before the usual Any Other Business Slot at the very end, devote specific time to raising issues. Creating explicit room can help overcome the reluctance, and social proof, as soon as one or two people start doing it, will encourage more bashful colleagues.
In addition, at every session, the team may nominate someone – akin to Edward de Bono’s black hat– who has as their specific role to start the discussion around future concerns and issues. When we play an assigned role, we are much more comfortable with raising difficult topics, as we don’t bring them in a personal capacity. We are not the moaner or the negative Nancy, we just play an important role.
Finally, you may want to consider giving this approach a structural place in the team management processes. A dedicated repository of such ‘future concerns and issues’ can be a permanent, visible symbol of the need to raise concerns and give them a place. And of course, it also encourages the team to decide at what point such a concern needs more dedicated attention.
With some judicious interventions there is no need for a team to end up in, or remain stuck in Abilene (if it doesn’t want to – Abilene is a fine city).
*: Actually, ostriches are not even so stupid as to bury their head in the sand.
Koen Smets is an organizational development consultant and an accidental behavioural economist. He serves as a Senior Advisor to the BVA Nudge Unit, who stand ready to help your organization avoid the “Abilene” effect.