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:
- How We Avoid Making Decisions
- When an important item remains on our To-Do list for a long time, it's possible that we've found ways
to avoid facing it. Some of the ways we do this are so clever that we may be unaware of them. Here's
a collection of techniques we use to avoid engaging difficult problems.
- The Perils of Piecemeal Analysis: Content
- A team member proposes a solution to the latest show-stopping near-disaster. After extended discussion,
the team decides whether or not to pursue the idea. It's a costly approach, because too often it leads
us to reject unnecessarily some perfectly sound proposals, and to accept others we shouldn't have.
- When the Chair Is a Bully: I
- Most meetings have chairs or "leads." Although the expression that the chair "owns"
the meeting is usually innocent shorthand, some chairs actually believe that they own the meeting. This
view is almost entirely destructive. What are the consequences of this attitude, and what can we do about it?
- Nine Brainstorming Demotivators: I
- The quality of the output of brainstorming sessions is notoriously variable. One source of variation
is the enthusiasm of contributors. Here's Part I of a set of nine phenomena that can limit contributions
to brainstorm sessions.
- Issues-Only Team Meetings
- Time spent in regular meetings is productive to the extent that it moves the team closer to its objectives.
Because uncovering and clarifying issues is more productive than distributing information or listening
to status reports, issues-only team meetings focus energy where it will help most.
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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