Sometimes our worst decisions do not result from conflict, but from conformity. We are wired to get along with others in our tribe. Because of this evolutionary tendency, we must work hard to avoid groupthink. Armies are aware of the perils of groupthink and ask a specific question when they suspect they may be falling prey to groupthink. Someone in the group asks: “Are we on the bus to Abilene?” What does it mean?
“It’s about a family sitting on a porch in Texas on a hot summer day, and somebody says, “I’m bored. Why don’t we go to Abilene?” When they get to Abilene, somebody says, “You know, I didn’t really want to go.” And the next person says, “I didn’t want to go — I thought you wanted to go,” and so on. Whenever you’re in an army group and somebody says, “I think we’re all getting on the bus to Abilene here.”
The “Bus to Abilene” is based on the article and short film: “The Abilene Paradox: The Management of Agreement” by Jerry B. Harvey. The anecdote reveals our tendency to follow those who initiate action—any action. We are particularly susceptible to the Abilene paradox during times of crisis or we lack the necessary psychological safety to feel it is safe to speak up whether it be to disagree or simply question a decision.
The Abilene paradox is a major issue associated with cooperation. It typically occurs within a group when each person agrees, who secretly wants to disagree. This can lead to major disasters such as Pearl Harbour, human atrocities like The Holocaust, or organizational scandals such as Enron (Watch the episode about Enron with Bethany McLean on the Innovation Show here).
Bob Pittman is the former CEO of MTV and today is chairman and chief executive of Clear Channel Communications. In a New York Times interview, Pittman revealed how often in meetings, he will ask people when they’re discussing an idea” “What did the dissenter say?” “The first time you do that”, he says, “somebody might say, “Well, everybody’s on board.” Then I’ll say, “Well, you guys aren’t listening very well, because there’s always another point of view somewhere and you need to go back and find out what the dissenting point of view is.”
Pittman went on to say, “I want us to listen to these dissenters because they may intend to tell you why we can’t do something, but if you listen hard, what they’re really telling you is what you must do to get something done. It gets you out of your framework of the conventions of what you can and can’t do.”
Gainsayers not Naysayers
gainsay: “contradict,” c.1300, literally “say against,” from Old English gegn- “against”: to deny or challenge a fact or statement
When discussing decisions, we must pay attention to the intent of dissent. There is a difference between a “Naysayer” and a “Gainsayer”. A naysayer is a person who criticizes, objects to, or opposes something, often with no better solution. A gainsayer, in contrast, is someone who emphasizes flaws and threats but does so with positive intent to avoid some future disaster or because they believe the strategy is flawed in some way.
Many changemakers and corporate catalysts fall into this broad category, they toggle between naysaying and gainsaying. Unfortunately, gainsayers are often labeled as negative influences. HR professionals or managers should be aware of gainsaying because it can often sound like complaining. As their colleagues and as organizational leaders, we must embrace the gainsayer. We should pay particular attention to intent. Are they moaning or are they seeking solutions?
In a group decision-making process, if the Abilene Paradox teaches us anything, it’s that we should never mistake courtesy for consent. We should mine for a dissenting voice, even though it is irritating. Despite the delays it can cause, a gainsayer, a positive dissenter could save you from making a poor decision, from pursuing an inferior strategy and it could ultimately keep you off the bus to Abilene.
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