Sometimes groups find that they've undertaken efforts that all members privately acknowledge are wrong-headed, even though all members agreed to undertake those efforts. Prof. Jerry Harvey identified this dynamic and named it a "Trip to Abilene." (See "Trips to Abilene," Point Lookout for November 27, 2002, for more.) Many factors contribute to this dysfunction. Some group members fear that raising objections to the proposed effort might lead to personally unpleasant consequences; others, possibly without foundation, fear being ejected from the group altogether; others recall, sometimes incorrectly, harsh treatment of objectors to previous group decisions; and some fantasize harsh consequences based on experiences in other groups unrelated to the present. There are numerous other factors, because the human mind is endlessly inventive.
We usually regard a Trip to Abilene as a dysfunction that arises in the context of explicit group decisions. But sometimes groups face choices that lie entirely outside their collective awareness. One example is the choice to "keep doing what we're doing." When a group — by default — keeps doing what it's doing, when all members would regard that choice as wrongheaded if it were proposed and undertaken openly, that group is Staying in Abilene.
How does this happen? Here are some examples of perspectives that limit a group's ability to avoid Staying in Abilene.
- I'm no expert
- Some group members might believe that their uneasiness about Staying in Abilene is due to their own inferior grasp of the situation. They see that everyone around them is content. Believing that some of their colleagues are better positioned to judge the wisdom of Staying in Abilene, they set their own uneasiness aside.
- I'm outta here
- Some group members are approaching retirement, or are seeking, or have already found, employment elsewhere. They've detached from the group, emotionally if not formally. Even if they feel certain that Staying in Abilene is wrong-headed, their commitment to the group is so low that they have little interest in expressing their concerns.
- Tunnel vision
- Some group members are so involved in their own responsibilities that they have only limited situational awareness. Others with more global responsibilities might be willfully focused on small slices of their portfolios, and therefore unaware of the need to leave Abilene.
- Among the more Some group members might
believe that their uneasiness
about Staying in Abilene is
due to their own inferior
grasp of the situationinsidious of mechanisms contributing to Staying in Abilene is self-censorship of thought and feeling. If we let ourselves consciously experience our uneasiness about Staying in Abilene, we might feel obliged to express our uneasiness to others. And that can be so frightening that we choose instead to deaden ourselves to our own uneasiness.
Staying in Abilene can actually arise from changes in conditions that once justified a prior decision. Suddenly, we can find that we're in Abilene even when we never intended to go there. Are you in Abilene? Top Next Issue
For more about Trips to Abilene, see Jerry B. Harvey, "The Abilene Paradox: The Management of Agreement," in Organizational Dynamics, Summer 1988, pp. 17-43.
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More articles on Workplace Politics:
- Things We Believe That Maybe Aren't So True
- Maxims and rules make life simpler by eliminating decisions. And they have a price: they sometimes foreclose
options that would have worked better than anything else. Here are some things we believe in maybe a
little too much.
- How Pet Projects Get Resources: Cleverness
- When pet projects thrive in an organization, they sometimes depend on the clever tactics of those who
nurture them to secure resources despite conflict with organizational priorities. How does this happen?
- Inappropriate Levels of Regard
- The regard we have for others as people is sometimes influenced by the regard we have for the work they
do. Confusing the two is a dangerous error.
- No Tangles
- When we must say "no" to people who have superior organizational power, the message sometimes
fails to get across. The trouble can be in the form of the message, the style of delivery, or elsewhere.
How does this happen?
- The Power and Hazards of Anecdotes: I
- Anecdotes are short stories — sometimes just a single sentence. They're powerful tools of persuasion,
but they can also be dangerous, to both anecdote tellers and anecdote listeners.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming March 28: Four Overlooked Email Risks: II
- Email exchanges are notorious for exposing groups to battles that would never occur in face-to-face conversation. But email has other limitations, less-often discussed, that make managing dialog very difficult. Here's Part II of an exploration of some of those risks. Available here and by RSS on March 28.
- And on April 4: Narcissistic Behavior at Work: III
- People who behave narcissistically tend to regard themselves as special. They systematically place their own interests and welfare ahead of anyone or anything else. In this part of the series we consider how this claimed specialness affects the organization and its people. Available here and by RSS on April 4.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
- Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.
Beware any resource that speaks of "winning" at workplace politics or "defeating" it. You can benefit or not, but there is no score-keeping, and it isn't a game.