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:
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- At any time, without warning, you can find yourself in a meeting that boils over. Sometimes tempers
rise, then voices rise, and then people yell and scream. What can a team do when meetings threaten to
boil over — and when they do?
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- I Could Be Wrong About That
- Before we make joint decisions at work, we usually debate the options. We come together to share views,
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fact that "I could be wrong" improves outcomes.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming April 8: The New Virtual Meeting: Digressions
- The bane of meetings everywhere, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, has been digressions. But there are reasons to expect the incidence of digressions in meetings to increase now. What reasons could there be, and what can we do about digressions? Available here and by RSS on April 8.
- And on April 15: Incompetence: Traps and Snares
- Sometimes people judge as incompetent colleagues who are unprepared to carry out their responsibilities. Some of these "incompetents" are trapped or ensnared in incompetence, unable to acquire the ability to do their jobs. Available here and by RSS on April 15.
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