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Leadership 101: Consensus is Overrated

There are leadership theories that place a premium on gaining consensus for decisions. Unfortunately, group consensus has a psychology of its own.

Just because you as the leader have gained consensus, you may want to be careful what you ask for.

You may remember Jerry Harvey’s Parable of the Abilene Paradox, (link is external) developed in 1974. Harvey, professor emeritus of management at George Washington University, created this story to illustrate the issue of “mismanaged agreement.”

journey into work

In the parable, a married couple and the wife’s parents are sitting on a porch of a house in Coleman, Texas. They are playing dominoes, drinking lemonade, watching the ceiling fan spin and attempting to survive the 104-degree heat.

The wife’s father suggests that they drive to Abilene, about 53 miles away, to eat at a cafeteria there. The son-in-law does not want to do this, but rather than make a fuss goes along with the idea, as do the two women.

They drive through a dust storm to Abilene in their un-air-conditioned 1968 Buick. No one particularly enjoys the mediocre lunch, and they drive back to Coleman grumpy and tired.

Later, they discover that none of them really ever wanted to go to Abilene; they all went simply because they thought the others wanted to go.

This parable is a great example of how we often “go along to get along” if we are hesitant to disagree with one another or stand out from the crowd. But by keeping mum, we often cause our organizations to waste time, effort and money. Harvey uses this parable to teach the management of agreement, as opposed to the management of disagreement or conflict.

In her article about the paradox, Kathryn Deiss summarizes Harvey’s six characteristics of a group headed for Abilene (link is external):

  • Members usually individually, but privately, agree about their situation.
  • They also agree about what it would take to deal with the situation.
  • Members fail to communicate their desires, and sometimes communicate the opposite, based on what they assume others desire.
  • Based on inaccurate perceptions and assumptions, members make a collective decision that leads to action.
  • Members experience frustration and anger with the organization.
  • Finally, members are destined to repeat this unsatisfying behavior if they do not begin to understand the genesis of mismanaged agreement.

Harvey says we are often willing to go to Abilene because of our deep fear of being left out, our desire to be a part of something larger than ourselves.

Breaking the Cycle of Wrong Assumptions and Fear

Breaking the cycle that so often leads us to blaming each other for decisions and actions that we “knew” we did not agree with in the first place is critical to the health and effectiveness of an organization or work group. It can only be accomplished by building new communication habits and getting beyond our fears.

Harvey believes that collusion motivates us to accept decisions and actions with which we fundamentally disagree or question. We submit to becoming victims by our own collusion with thinking that we believe to be wrong-headed or, at the very least, headed in the wrong direction.

Avoiding “making a trip to Abilene” in our organizations takes the courageous act by each of us of both refusing to be victims and refusing to victimize others.

group decisionsOne of the modern-day problems we have revolves around something called “teamwork.” Teamwork is a problem insofar as we do not define or carefully delineate behaviors related to effective teamwork–particularly those behaviors related to questioning and inquiring into proposed group decisions or acts.

Team members often feel that if they do not agree with the group, particularly when they seem to be the only ones not agreeing, they will suffer by being alienated or “wrong.” Helping team members learn how to question assumptions, their own included, can develop strong decision-making powers within the team. The team will then become much better at managing agreement.

Further, the overall emotional intelligence of the team can influence whether the groupthink leads to an Abilene Paradox or not. With an emotionally mature group, there will be willingness to stand alone with opinion that may run contrary to direction where the team seems to be leaning. Managing agreement is actually a very significant challenge for any leader because of this Abilene Paradox psychology.

Conclusion

Businesses of all sizes make decisions and take actions every day. Often these decisions and actions are based on a false sense of consensus within the group. To better avoid this, we need to have a clear definition of consensus and how it is reached. How does this definition sound?

Consensus occurs when all key stakeholders build the decision, accept it, and support it, even though the final decision may not be the first preference of each individual member. In other words, consensus is not about voting!

We need to raise individual and group consciousness about the problems of not testing early and often for consensus. We need to build strong dialogue, inquiry, and advocacy skills and learn how to use them as is situationally appropriate. And, finally, we need to learn how to avoid true loneliness by giving our thoughts and opinions voice and trusting the group with which we are working.

Good leaders can shepherd this development of consensus, watching for warning signs of team members giving in. Great leaders do the same and more. Truly great leaders create the environment for stakeholder contribution to decision making, but are willing to make the tough call beyond what the group decides, thus avoiding the Abilene principle altogether.

An undesired and frustrating trip to Abilene in 104-degree heat should be a compelling image in our minds of the critical need to understand your own process for reaching consensus among your group.