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
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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.
Read even more in a wonderful book by Jerry B. Harvey, The Abilene Paradox and Other Meditations on Management. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1988. Order from Amazon.com.
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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 13: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: I
- To take the risks that learning and practicing new ways require, we all need a sense that trial-and-error approaches are safe. Organizations seeking to improve processes would do well to begin by assessing their level of psychological safety. Available here and by RSS on December 13.
- And on December 20: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: II
- When we begin using new tools or processes, we make mistakes. Practice is the cure, but practice can be scary if the grace period for early mistakes is too short. For teams adopting new methods, psychological safety is a fundamental component of success. Available here and by RSS on December 20.
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