Abilene Paradox (Part – 3) -
How do we insulate ourselves from the bug?

Madan Tripathy

Welcome back. Glad to meet you again.
If you have gone through the earlier two parts of this series, you very well know that Abilene paradox refers to situations or circumstances when a group of individuals collectively decide on a course of action based on the mistaken belief that it is in the best interest of the Group, though in reality it is counter to the preferences of many (or all) of the individuals in the group. In the earlier two posts, we have discussed at length about the origin of the Paradox, its harmful effects and also how and where the Paradox thrives. If you have not gone through the earlier posts, may I request you to go through the same before going through this post. The links are given below.

i. Abilene Paradox (Part 1)


ii. Abilene Paradox (Part 2)


This is the third post in the series. In this post, we will discuss how do we ensure that the Paradox does not sneak in, albeit surreptiously, in our personal and professional life.

Beware of false consensus, the heart of the Abilene Paradox

Abilene Paradox thrives because of pseud-consensus. The first & foremost thing to be understood by each team member involved in the decision making is whether the assumed consensus is a reality. Let us consider that a proposal for a course of action is discussed in the group in which you are a member. Since you can’t unearth what is really going on in the minds of people, you come to know somebody is against it, only when he speaks against it. If there is no alternate suggestion or no dissenting voice, you assume that others are in favor. Accordingly, you either agree or remain silent, not to go against the opinion of the group. But, reality often is different. People do not voice a different opinion for a plethora of reasons, as discussed in the previous post. Believe me, others also make the same erroneous assumption about you. When the so called agreement is based on erroneous assumptions of all or majority of group members, it is bound to be erroneous.

Whether the consensus is actually real or false can be known, if there is free & frank discussion between team members based on trust. When there is an indication that the discussion is being driven for a false consensus, it may be prudent to have a break and allow people to discuss informally & again reassemble, which may help. Sometimes, it may be helpful to break into subgroups, discuss & get the opinion of each of the subgroups. The purpose is to elicit honest opinion of people loud and clear.

While “Team Cohesion” is extremely important for completing any project successfully, but it is also equally important, if not more, to ensure that the “Team Cohesion” should not go to the extent of throttling rational thinking and choking independent voice. Striking a balance, therefore, is of paramount importance. As Mark Peter Davis rightly puts it – “To me, the most productive culture for a business is one that allows for "constructive disagreement." The team needs to be able to raise issues, debate them, and resolve them. In fact, great teams encourage conflict with the realization that in order to have a real consensus, they need to explore divergent paths before converging on an agreement. Only when people are in a position to express their thought & opinion clearly, they can reach consensus.

Your responsibilities as individual Team Members

 Speak up –

As Laurie Halse Anderson puts it - "When people don't express themselves, they die one piece at a time."

Teamwork does not imply killing your individual voice. You have a top-rated mind. Do not sit on the wings and allow people for making the decision for you. It is tough to get out of this type of Group Dynamics, if there is no one to muster courage to speak. Irrespective of whether your opinion is directly solicited or not, if you are the part of the group, you should express your true feelings with confidence, sensitivity, honesty and integrity. People will have a lot of respect for you if you voice your concerns for incorrect, illogical and detrimental proposal. There are some tips given below, which you may like to follow for speaking up with confidence and conviction.

• Do your home-work well. Ensure that you have all the facts that are necessary.
• Do careful analysis of all the alternatives – the pros & cons.
• Listen attentively to all the deliberations.
• Listen to what is said, try to fathom what is assumed to be said and also what is left unsaid.
• Be conscious that more than 90% of communication is non-verbal.
• Choose the appropriate time to speak up your mind.
• While speaking, give more stress on facts than on assumptions and feelings.
• Be positive and confident while speaking.
• But, also be conscious that you may be wrong. So, do not take it as offensive if people find faults in what you speak.

 Learn to say “No” –

Saying “No” and differing with a proposal, which you assume that others are in agreement, is not an easy task by any means. This is because we normally aim to please and do not like to have a confrontation with our group-members. However, when your actual opinion for a proposal is genuinely “No”, but you give your consent for the proposal, for whatever reasons, against your true will, it will continue to beat you up mentally. Please realize that if you, at any point of time, thought about saying “no” to something, there is merit for consideration of the same, in all probability.

Monitor your internal dialogue. Trust your gut. Take responsibility & make your intensions absolutely clear. Let your colleagues know that your concerns are genuine and are in the best interest of the group. Do not accept any proposal or suggestion on face value. Challenge the assumptions. Evaluate all options. Challenge the people arguing for the proposal to give rational proof. It may sometimes bring discomfort, which is natural. But it is worth it. It may contribute in deterring the group in acting on a proposal which is not correct and harmful in the long run. It will give you immense satisfaction in the long run for doing something good for the organization, against odds.

Remember that at some point of time, everyone thought that the world was flat and anyone thinking otherwise was considered crazy. But, voice of one person against it, who stood by his own beliefs, proved otherwise. So, there is nothing wrong to be the loner & persistent, if you are convinced that you are right.

Of course, there is no guarantee that your opinion is right or is going to be accepted. But, just by voicing a genuine contrast view, you definitely help the group to explicitly evaluate all alternatives to choose the best.

 Caution – Don’t become a “Naysayer”, just for the sake of it

Of course, you must be careful that you are not going to be branded as a “No Addict”, as if there is no word called “Yes” in your dictionary. You need to be really selective.
 How to say “NO”

“How you say” is of much more importance than “what you say”. If your genuine interest is to make you being heard and have a meaningful dialogue based on mutual appreciation of facts and not for scoring a point, you should be careful about how you say. Your way of saying “NO” obviously depends on the circumstances. It will also depend a lot on your understanding of the situation, your knowledge & analysis of the situation & your own preparedness.

It may not be prudent to start with, “I don’t agree.” This statement itself will most likely take the proposer & other people agreeing to it straight to a combating mode. Instead, probe into where the proposal comes from and what are different advantages of the proposal which have been taken into consideration. If possible, try to put in your suggestions as an extension or a corollary which can be evaluated, which will be more acceptable to start with. You can always fortify your suggestion with facts & figures, which will appeal to any rational mind.

For such communications, Sandwich Principle, appeals me the most.

i. 1st Slice of Bread: Start off with positive feedback – Start with authentic praise of the thought process that has gone into making the proposal and its possible advantages. You may also mention something like this – “It may be worthwhile in exploring further some of the facts and data that seem to have contributed for making this proposal” or “I agree that the proposal is good based on available data & facts, nevertheless it may be worthwhile to explore further if anything is missing or if the proposal could be modified for better”. There could many more different ways to communicate the initial submission. Essence is to give credit to the initiator & the proposer for what has already been done and not to offend the proposer or other group-members agreeing to the same.
ii. The Meat of the Matter – This is the central piece of Sandwich and contains your constructive criticism and your alternate proposal, if any. Please be specific with facts and figures while putting up an alternate proposal. Mention clearly that you are open for a dialogue to understand each other’s position better. If possible, word your proposal in a way, as if it is an extension of the earlier proposal, rather than a contrast, to make it more acceptable for evaluation. If it is not possible to put it as extension of the earlier proposal, be specific why you would like to prefer this over the other, supported by facts, figures and examples.

iii. 2nd Slice of Bread – End on a positive note. Extend thanks to group members for giving you a patient listening. Be open to feedbacks. If there is further discussion on your suggestions, mention your point of view with all humility. Accept your own mistake, if it comes to that. Be persistent, but not harsh. Be assertive, but not aggressive.

It is all about Leadership

As Stephen Covey has put it - "Management is efficiency in climbing the ladder of success; leadership determines whether the ladder is leaning against the right wall."
The culture flows from the top. It’s a matter of the environment that is established by you as the leader. It is the responsibility of the leader to establish a consistent work culture that encourages effective communication.

First and foremost, you need to create an atmosphere in which all members, not necessarily only senior or experienced members, feel that they can voice their opinion without fear of being mocked and ridiculed. This is your area of control. Once you set the tone in the meetings and stick continuously to these ground rules, healthy discussion and debate will automatically flourish.

Second important point is to understand as a leader is it is your responsibility to guide the discussion, not control the discussion. Good leaders stimulate their people to speak up their genuine opinion. Abilene Paradox will continue to exist if people do not open up even if they genuinely disagree with something. It is a well-known phenomenon in Social Psychology that people are hesitant to voice opinions, which they feel is minority. So, as a leader, you should encourage different opinions & constructive arguments through appreciative enquiry, rather than putting emphasis on unanimity and conformity. If there is tendency of people to speak like – “I support the view of -----“or “I agree with -----“, encourage them to speak up the rationale, why do they agree to a particular point of view.

You should motivate critical reasoning, rather than succumbing to a hasty decision and a fake consensus. In the process, you may end up in not accepting the views of some of the group members through the process of discussion & debate, but the disagreement will be reasoned and respectful. None of us want to pour our resources into bad ideas. By putting efforts to select the best possible alternative, you will not only get the satisfaction of being an effective leader, your team will also remain more motivated and take ownership of the projects they work on, making the implementation smooth.

Apart from above, there are different methods used by good leaders to ensure whole-hearted participation by the team.

• Once problem for which solution is sought is identified, some leaders advise the participants to think up and write down their points. Then it is presented to the group one by one. Advantage of this is that it deters “Empty vessel sounds much”, everybody gets a chance to speak and precious time is saved to listen to everyone. Moreover, this simple exercise of thinking independently and penning down in advance helps individuals to come out with their true opinion in a systematic manner.

• A variation of this method is to collect anonymous opinion of the people separately, if there is apprehension that people are not comfortable to give their opinion in public. Conversely, in a group setting, you may also give some time to the participants to write their opinion without giving their identity. Then you can collect the papers once time is over and then write all the ideas in a white board. This is sometimes helpful in making the people think out of the box, without being scared of personal criticism & ridicule.

• A laundry list of suggestions can come in the process, which can be short-listed by the process of elimination. In this way, final alternatives taken for consideration for discussion & debate do not belong to any particular individual, but belong to the group as a whole. This also will give opportunity to the group members to build on each other’s ideas.

• Similar exercise can also be done by breaking the group (if the group is big) to sub-groups and asking the sub-group to discuss and then present their suggestions for consideration of the bigger group.

• Some leaders utilize the concept of devil’s advocate by identifying people (may be without other’s knowledge) to question each & every alternative to encourage constructive discussion. This will prevent mindless conformity and fake consensus. But, it needs to be sparingly & cautiously used, so that some people are not branded as “naysayers.”

• At-cause approach – It is also important to develop a culture by which every individual member takes personal responsibility for the collective decision of the group. So, there is no buck passing & no criticism.

• Behavior breeds behavior. As such, your own conduct in conducting meetings in turn will make the meeting more effective. Be forthright in communicating that the organization needs diverse thinking and not conformist attitude. Action speaks louder than words. Praise critical thinking and appreciate people speaking in a constructive manner. This will encourage people not to go with the flow, which is detrimental for the organization.

• Sometimes leaders also bring in group outsiders, present the final shortlisted alternatives to them & take their opinion for having an independent perspective.

• As a group leader or facilitator, reserve your opinion till the end, so that others do not tend to copy you. Your opinion should not have precedence over the group process.

• Last, but not the least, you should be decisive as a leader. In the words of William James – “There is no miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision.”

As a concluding remark, I would like to mention that the life, both personal & professional, is a matter of choice. Our life today is largely a result of choices we have made in the past. Choices we make today will shape our life in the future. As such, we must be extremely careful in our decisions & choices.

With this, we have come to the end of this series of posts on Abilene Paradox. Trust you must have enjoyed reading and found out connection of the same in your personal & professional life, how it creeps in even without your knowledge. Trust also you will prevent yourself from being a prey to the Abilene Paradox in future. With best of luck for strategizing and making the right choice for success in your personal & professional life and for success of the team you lead.

Wait for more interesting articles in this BLOG. Promise I will not disappoint you.

Author's Bio: 

Hi! I am Madan Tripathy, presently employed as Vice President, HR & Business Excellence in Rallis India Limited(A TATA Enterprise). Have worked successfully as Vice President, HR & Admin in in NELCO Ltd. (A Tata Enterprise) and Head, HR in Global Wind Power Ltd (A Reliance ADA Group Company). Starting my professional career as Management Trainee in Steel Authority of India Limited and subsequently working at different levels in Steel Authority Of India Ltd.,Rourkela Steel Plant, I have more than 36 years of rich & varied experience in all areas of Human Resources with blend of experience of working in both Public & Private Sectors of repute. My experience in HR is varied and diversified having worked in organizations at different stages of life cycle viz;- start up, stable, growing & developing and also organizations growing through business restructuring.

I am a Doctorate in Management from Capitol University and M.B.A. in HR. My other qualifications include Post Graduation Degrees in Physics and Public Administration and a Degree in Law.

Acted as a visiting faculty on HR, IR and Behavioral Sciences in different institutes apart from conducting in-house Leadership & Management Development Programs.

Have conducted research on subjects of Behavioral Psychology like Emotional Intelligence, Stress Management, Burnout Stress Syndrome and Rust out Stress Syndrome.

Have the privilege of Successful completion of training of six weeks in “HRD SKILLS AND TECHNIQUES”at BROOK-FIELD MANOR MANAGEMENT TRAINING CENTER IN U.K. and in BRITISH STEEL,SCUNTHORPE WORKS IN U.K.

Conferred with HR Leadership Award in 2013 by Asia Pacific HRM Congress. Under my leadership in HR, Rallis India Ltd. has been conferred with Significance Achievement in HR Excellence in 2014 by Confederation of Indian Industries. Conferred with the “100 Most Talented Global HR Leaders” award by CHRO-Asia in World HRD Congress in Feb,2015.

I have a publication of more than 20 Articles on different facets of Management published in Management Journals of repute. I have more than 10 articles published in websites.