First, a story: Many moons ago on a steaming hot summer day, a family somewhere in the middle of Texas was sitting on their porch, sweating bullets with absolutely nothing to do. Grandpa throws out a few ideas to beat the heat and get a change of scenery, none of which seem too appealing. Grandma throws out a couple more ideas, including jumping in the car and driving the whole family, including the dog, to Abilene, another steaming hot city with not much going on. Mom asks Dad, "Do you want to go to Abilene", Dad says "Meh". Junior asks Grandpa, "Do you want to go to Abilene", to which he responds with a noncommittal shrug and so it goes. Junior, Mom, Dad, Baby Texan, Grandpa, Grandma AND the dog all recognize that going to Abilene is a terrible idea and no one actually wants to go. But lo and behold, they somehow find themselves driving in their un air-conditioned Dodge Caravan to Abilene, which was, in fact, a far worse outcome than just sitting on the porch at home.
Thus, the Abilene Paradox was born - the situation when a group of people collectively decide on a course of action that is counter to the actual preferences of many (or all) of the individuals in the group.
We've all seen the Abilene Paradox happen before. Think about the last time you were with a group of friends trying to decide on a place to eat...and somehow you end up at a restaurant that no one really likes. (This almost happened to a few of us gals last weekend...we came this close to going to a *gasp* jazz dinner club, but luckily there was a brave woman in the group who broke the paradox and spoke out!).
At work, the Abilene Paradox rears its ugly head in a bunch of different places. Someone throws out an idea (often the first idea) and because no one wants to healthily prod or challenge the idea, we end up selecting that idea despite no one really thinking that it’s great. Or, how about when we hire the candidate who is everyone’s 3rd or 4th choice (often this person doesn't have any strong negatives, but doesn't really have any strong positives either..). Folks come out of the hiring meeting scratching their heads thinking… "How the heck did we just hire boring Bob?”
As a new manager, you are going to be in charge of leading teams to decisions. The hard thing about leading teams through decisions is that groups fall prey to situations like the Abilene Paradox, where a bad decision is made because no one spoke up or spoke out. So today, my friends, we are going to explore your role as a manager in leading your teams to better decisions. You have a responsibility as a manager to ensure that your team feels comfortable and excited about speaking up (sharing their opinions and ideas) and speaking out (disagreeing and dissenting with other opinions being shared, especially yours).
But, you may ask, “Why does this happen? I have a team of brilliant young ‘uns who would never let a bad decision happen. We always have healthy debate during our meetings and they will always tell me the truth.” Well, my friend, there are jedi-like forces that cause the Abilene Paradox to happen - WITHOUT YOU EVEN KNOWING!!
First, it’s hard for an individual to have a differing opinion from the rest of a group - it creates severe anxiety for a person when his / her opinion is in the minority (see Asch’s famous experiments). We care about what people think of us, so we conform to the group’s ideas so we aren’t perceived as different. Second, in groups, we end up talking about information that we all already know, and it’s hard for us to bring up new information, despite that info being helpful or critical. Third, we are influenced by others’ judgments, even if we don’t realize it. This is a process called ‘mental contamination’ and it prevents us from sharing our unbiased opinions.
Lastly, and perhaps the most powerful one to remember when managing new, young people is that….we all want to be liked! And who do we like? We like people who are agreeable and validating of our brilliant ideas! So a junior person in a team is going to want to come across as likable, which means he is not going to poo poo an idea, especially an idea put forward by his brilliant manager (you!).
Okay, we now know why...so the next question is how: how do you as a manager encourage your team to speak up and speak out?
The Super Simple, Easy-to-Implement Ways to Get Your Team Talking!
Solicit Differing Opinions and Ideas: sometimes all people need is an invitation to dance. Make it a part of your management practice to always ask for people’s opinions and truly listen when they give them.
Appoint a Devil’s Advocate: have a big decision you’re trying to make with your team? Nominate one person in your group who is responsible for bringing up the opposite point-of-view for each of the arguments. Not only will it help result in a better informed and stronger decision, it will also help junior people build the muscle of disagreeing.
Brainstorm - But Brainstorm Alone: If you’re planning a meeting where you want to brainstorm a whole bunch of ideas, have your team members come up with ideas independently before the meeting. The ideas that you start with will be more creative and suffer from less mental contamination than if brainstormed as a group. The same goes for building arguments for a decision - have folks prepare beforehand their arguments or facts to inform a group decision.
Praise and Reward Dissent: Build a culture on your team where bravery in speaking out is praised openly, and rewarded (e.g., promotions, more responsibility, employee recognition).
Speak Last As The Manager: Folks hate to hear this...but once you get a little bit of power, people treat you differently. Despite the fact that you’re cool, hip, and fun to be around, your team may still exhibit deferential behavior towards you and change their opinions based on yours. So, speak last and ask the most junior members of your team to offer their opinions first.
I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the following: as first-time managers, we often feel insecure and vulnerable that our team doesn’t think we are smart, competent or worthy of our role. This insecurity often manifests itself in us talking way too much in meetings, us wanting to seem like we know the answer to all questions, and us not allowing our ideas or decisions to be exposed to weaknesses or debate. But push against that insecurity and those behaviors: it’s much better to get your team to speak up and speak out - you’ll ultimately look (and be!) far more competent as a manager if you do so.
So folks, as a manager, you have a responsibility for getting your team to pipe up - not only because it builds their voice and abilities, but because it will result in better decisions, ideas, and outcomes for you and your organization. And, it’s much more fun to be part of a team where ideas are flowing, folks feel safe disagreeing, and no one ever has to listen to jazz.
The Abilene Paradox and groupthink, more generally, are powerful phenomena that impact teams. If we aren’t careful, our teams may make bad decisions that no one is happy with.
These phenomena often happen because people want to be liked and be seen in a positive light by those around them, especially by those who are more senior than they are.
As a manager, it falls on you to create a set of behaviors, norms, and a culture that encourages your team to speak up and speak out.
So, nominate a devil’s advocate, brainstorm alone, reward dissent and speak last as a manager!
Read: The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Patrick Lencioni Leading Teams: Setting the Stage for Great Performances, J. Richard Hackman
Read more (for the nerds out there):
Conformity - Asch (1951)
Pooling of Unshared Information - Stasser & Titus (1985)
Power and Knowledge Seeking - Eisendhart & Bourgeouis (1988)
How We View Info in a Group - Wittenbaum & Bowman (2004)