Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 13, Issue 33;   August 14, 2013: Staying in Abilene

Staying in Abilene

by

A "Trip to Abilene," identified by Jerry Harvey, is a group decision to undertake an effort that no group members believe in. Extending the concept slightly, "Staying in Abilene" happens when groups fail even to consider changing something that everyone would agree needs changing.
Brian Urquhart of the Office of the UN Under-Secretaries Without Porfolios. (1 January 1956)

Brian Urquhart of the Office of the UN Under-Secretaries Without Porfolios. (1 January 1956). In September, 1944, Urquhart was a Major in the 1st Airborne Division of British Airborne Forces, and the division's chief intelligence officer, during the preparations for Operation Market Garden. The operation was an airborne invasion of the Netherlands as a means of circumventing the German Siegfried Line, and thereby gaining entry into Germany. Major Urquhart had assembled intelligence, both from captured German soldiers and from the Dutch resistance, that led him to believe that Allied estimates of German strength in the area of Arnhem were erroneous — so much so that the errors represented a serious threat to Market Garden's success. He then arranged for aerial photographic reconnaissance, which confirmed his conjecture that SS Panzer divisions were operating in the area. Deeply troubled and concerned about the grave threat to the Market Garden plan, he tried to persuade the Commander of 1st Airborne Corps, Lt. Gen. Frederick Browning, of his case, but failed. Gen. Browning then ordered the division's chief medical officer, Col. Austin Eagger, to send Maj. Urquhart on sick leave because of "nervous strain and exhaustion." (See Arnhem 1944: The Airborne Battle 17-26 September, by Martin Middlebrook, p. 66, for the full story) The operation went forward as planned, disaster ensued, and Maj. Urquhart's concerns were validated.

The treatment of Maj. Urquhart is an example of what people fear might happen when they raise questions about a group's decision to take a Trip to Abilene, or about a group's default decision to Stay in Abilene. This sort of treatment has consequences far beyond the boundaries of the groups in question. People everywhere know of these stories, and they bring that knowledge with them when they arrive in a group for the first time. Leaders who want group members to speak their minds would do well to address the existence of these stories whenever people join the group. Photo courtesy The United Nations.

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.
Self-censoring
Among the more Some group members might
believe that their uneasiness
about Staying in Abilene is
due to their own inferior
grasp of the situation
insidious 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? Go to top Top  Next issue: Social Isolation and Workplace Bullying  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.

See also "Trips to Abilene," Point Lookout for November 27, 2002, and "Virtual Trips to Abilene," Point Lookout for March 4, 2015.

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. More info

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrengOLIQyEauVLzPnSvner@ChaczMoJljIhJtjlgHVwoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Workplace Politics:

A straw-bale houseResponding to Threats: I
Threats are one form of communication common to many organizational cultures, especially as pressure mounts. Understanding the varieties of threats can be helpful in determining a response that fits for you.
Gen. John J. Pershing, Gen. George C. Marshall and Gen. Dwight D. EisenhowerWhen You're the Least of the Best: II
Many professions have entry-level roles that combine education with practice. Although these "newbies" have unique opportunities to learn from veterans, the role's relatively low status sometimes conflicts with the self-image of the new practitioner. Comfort in the role makes learning its lessons easier.
A Hug-Free Zone posterUnwanted Hugs from Strangers
Some of us have roles at work that expose us to unwanted hugs from people we don't know. After a while, this experience can be far worse than merely annoying. How can we deal with unwanted hugs from strangers?
An egg sandwichThe 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.
Senator Jeff Sessions grills Budget Director Sylvia Burwell on President Obama's 2015 Budget March 5, 2014That Was a Yes-or-No Question: I
In tense situations, one person might question another. As the respondent replies, the questioner interjects, "That was a yes-or-no question." The intent is to trap the respondent. How does this work, and how can the respondent escape the trap?

See also Workplace Politics and Emotions at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Office equipment — or is it office toys?Coming July 25: Exploiting Functional Fixedness: II
A cognitive bias called functional fixedness causes difficulty in recognizing new uses for familiar things. It also makes for difficulty in recognizing devious uses of everyday behaviors. Here's Part II of a catalog of deviousness based on functional fixedness. Available here and by RSS on July 25.
Tim Murphy, official photo for the 112th CongressAnd on August 1: Strategies of Verbal Abusers
Verbal abuse at work has special properties, because it takes place in an environment in which verbal abuse is supposedly proscribed. Yet verbal abuse does happen at work. Here are three strategies abusers rely on to avoid disciplinary action. Available here and by RSS on August 1.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenszUXaisesQAcCCcPner@ChacyKOYJXAsmZYvtzbMoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople 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.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
Please donate!The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!

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.

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics!
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
My free weekly email newsletter gives concrete tips and suggestions for dealing with the challenging but everyday situations we all face.
A Tip A DayA Tip a Day arrives by email, or by RSS Feed, each business day. It's 20 to 30 words at most, and gives you a new perspective on the hassles and rewards of work life. Most tips also contain links to related articles. Free!
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.