As if face-to-face meetings weren't challenging enough, most organizations have moved along to Level Five of the Game of Meetings: virtual meetings. They hope to accomplish much more work in much less time. Often they actually accomplish much less work in much more time. Of the many dangers awaiting them in Level 5 is the Virtual Trip to Abilene, which is the virtual version of a face-to-face danger.
In a Trip to Abilene, which is a group dysfunction first identified by Jerry Harvey, a group commits to something no members favor. Privately, nobody feels that the group is behaving sensibly, but everybody feels that the rest of the group favors the decision. Nobody objects. Everybody expresses support.
Trips to Abilene happen because everyone wants to accommodate everyone else. The same can happen in virtual meetings, but the probabilities are different because virtual meetings are different.
Here are some of the differences. Trips to Abilene in virtual meetings are…
- …more likely because expressing misgivings is more difficult
- Expressing To avoid offending others,
some will go along with
what they see as a
gathering consensusmisgivings is more difficult in virtual meetings. For example, in conference calls, people cannot see others' facial expressions or gestures. Raising objections tactfully is more difficult, which makes some people reluctant to object. Even when someone does raise objections, grasping accurately the sense and intensity of the objections is more difficult.
- …both more likely and less likely because people are less connected
- People in virtual meetings typically know each other less well than do people in face-to-face meetings. Some are therefore unsure about where others stand on the question at hand. To avoid offending others, some will go along with what they see as a gathering consensus. On the other hand, because people are less connected, they're sometimes less concerned about offending each other by raising objections, which reduces the likelihood of Trips to Abilene.
- …more likely because of the perception that the mistake won't affect me
- In virtual meetings, if the group undertakes a decision that a member feels is incorrect, a reduced sense of connection makes it easier for members to shrug it off and let the group go ahead with the blunder.
- …more likely because some people aren't paying attention
- Inattentiveness is common in virtual meetings. People who don't pay attention can sometimes miss details of the question at hand. They might have objected if they realized the full import of the decision, but because of inattentiveness, they can mistakenly support something they might otherwise oppose. Because of the mechanisms described above, inattentiveness can kick off a cascade of support for a proposal that would otherwise fail.
In all meetings, education is the best defense against Trips to Abilene. Make sure people know how Trips work, and when in doubt, do an anonymous Abilene Check to be sure you aren't going there. Top Next Issue
Are your virtual meetings plagued by inattentiveness, interruptions, absenteeism, and a seemingly endless need to repeat what somebody just said? Do you have trouble finding a time when everyone can meet? Do people seem disengaged and apathetic? Or do you have violent clashes and a plague of virtual bullying? Read Leading Virtual Meetings for Real Results to learn how to make virtual meetings much more productive and less stressful — and a lot shorter. Order Now!
Read 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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More articles on Effective Meetings:
- Mastering Meeting Madness
- If you lead an organization, and people are mired in meeting madness, you can end it. Here are a few
tips that can free everyone to finally get some work done.
- Games for Meetings: I
- We spend a lot of time and emotional energy in meetings, much of it engaged in any of dozens of ritualized
games. Here's Part I of a little catalog of some of our favorites, and what we can do about them.
- When the Chair Is a Bully: II
- Assertiveness by chairs of meetings isn't a problem in itself, but it becomes problematic when the chair's
dominance deprives the meeting of contributions from some of its members. Here's Part II of our exploration
of the problem of bully chairs.
- Exasperation Generators: Opaque Metaphors
- Most people don't mind going to meetings. They don't even mind coming back from them. It's being
in meetings that can be so exasperating. What can we do about this?
- Chronic Peer Interrupters: II
- People use a variety of tactics when they're interrupted while making contributions in meetings. Some
tactics work well, while others carry risks of their own. Here's Part II of a little survey of those tactics.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming March 27: Stone-Throwers at Meetings: II
- A stone-thrower in a meeting is someone who is determined to halt forward progress. Motives vary, from embarrassing the chair to holding the meeting hostage in exchange for advancing an agenda. What can chairs do about stone-throwers? Available here and by RSS on March 27.
- And on April 3: Career Opportunity or Career Trap: I
- When we're presented with an opportunity that seems too good to be true, as the saying goes, it probably is. Although it's easy to decline free vacations, declining career opportunities is another matter. Here's a look at indicators that a career opportunity might be a career trap. Available here and by RSS on April 3.
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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.