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General Management

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Assignment of General Management on the Abilene Paradox: The Management of Agreement

Joseph NGENZI
MPAM/3020/11

This Term Paper is Submitted in partial fulfillment of UNIT MBA 603 grades of the School of Business and Public Management for the award of Master of Public Administration and Management.
Mt. Kenya University

July, 2011

INTRODUCTION

Four adults are sitting on a porch in 104-degree heat in the small town of Coleman, Texas, some 53 miles from Abilene. They are engaging in as little motion as possible, drinking lemonade, watching the fan spin lazily, and occasionally playing the odd game of dominoes. The characters are a married couple and the wife’s parents. At some point, the wife’s father suggests they drive to Abilene to eat at a cafeteria there. The son in-law thinks this is a crazy idea but doesn’t see any need to upset the apple cart, so he goes along with it, as do the two women. They get in their unaired-conditioned Buick and drive through a dust storm to Abilene. They eat a mediocre lunch at the cafeteria and return to Coleman exhausted, hot, and generally unhappy with the experience. It is not until they return home that it is revealed that none of them really wanted to go to Abilene–they were just going along because they thought the others were eager to go. Naturally, everyone sees this miss in communication as someone else’s problem.

Dr. Harvey used this wonderfully simple parable to illustrate what he believes is a major symptom of organizational dysfunction: the management of agreement as opposed to the management of disagreement or conflict. This unique perspective has much to teach us about how we do or do not engage in deep inquiry and in self-disclosure when attempting to come to agreement with others.

The fundamental problem of contemporary organizations, broadly defined to include families, churches, governments, businesses and academic institutions, is the inability to cope with the fact that we agree with one another. The problem is not the inability to cope with conflict. In fact, most conflict in organizations of all kinds is phony, and is unconsciously generated in an effort to keep us from having to do anything significant.

After making the above statement, Harvey recounts the origin of the Abilene Paradox. The story, in short, is how his entire family agreed to take a rather unpleasant trip to the town of Abilene, Texas, despite the fact that no one individual wanted to go. Each person agreed to go because they thought everyone else wanted to go.
The phenomenon may be a form of groupthink. It is easily explained by social psychology theories of social conformity and social influence which suggest that human beings are often very averse to acting contrary to the trend of the group. Likewise, it can be observed in psychology that indirect cues and hidden motives often lie behind peoples' statements and acts, frequently because social disincentives discourage individuals from openly voicing their feelings or pursuing their desires.
HOW TO DETERMINE WHEN YOU'RE ABOUT TO TAKE A TRIP TO ABILENE:

1. When people say one thing in public and another thing in private, you can be sure the bus to Abilene is on its way. 2. Agreement is a problem. This is true because once you agree with others; you have to share in their existential risk. If a subordinate can maintain conflict with a superior, then the subordinate can share in the rewards of the effort, but not share the risks of failure. 3. Collusion. It takes collusion to take a trip to Abilene. Everyone has to be in agreement. 4. Responsibility and choice. Everyone has an equal responsibility and an equal choice to break the trip to Abilene. The power to break the paradox comes not from one's position in the hierarchy or job description, but from one's willingness to take the risk. But that involves confrontation. Confrontation, generally, is defined as negative fantasy. 5. Members fail to communicate their desires and/or beliefs to one another, and, most importantly, sometimes even communicate the very opposite of their wishes based on what they assume are the desires and opinions of others. People make incorrect assumptions about consensus. In the Abilene case, one suggestion (offered on the assumption that the people wanted to do something besides sit on the porch) began a domino-like sequence of individual agreement with the concept in spite of each person’s private misgivings about the desirability and wisdom of making the trip to Abilene. 6. Based on inaccurate perceptions and assumptions, members make a collective decision that leads to action. It is in the action that it becomes apparent that the decision is contrary to individual desires. They thereby arrive at a destination they did not want to go to in the first place. Our protagonists in the parable do not actually discover their unanimous disagreement with the action they took until someone says, "Well, that was a nice trip." Another person is then moved by frustration and exhaustion to blurt out the truth, "It was not a good idea or a nice trip!" 7. Members experience frustration, anger, and dissatisfaction with the organization. Often this leads to the forming of sub-groups that take combative or blaming positions toward each other. The Abilene group begins asking themselves immediately, "Whose crazy idea was this anyway?" and thus starts the blaming cycle. 8. Finally, members are destined to repeat this unsatisfying and dysfunctional behaviour if they do not begin to understand the genesis of mismanaged agreement.

SOURCES OF THE PARADOX

It is provocative to ask why people would actually speak against their own desires. What psychological reasons are there for doing something that is bound to result in both individual discomfort and in a lack of full and valid information for the group and our organizations? It is believed, according to Harvey, that people behave in this manner because they are afraid of the unknown. His hypothesis, quite different from others, is that we know what we are afraid of and that it generally has to do with loneliness, being left out, separation, and alienation.
To avoid these, we will actually act against our best interests, hoping to be "part" of something, members of the whole. We also tend to believe that any decision or action is better than no action at all. The problem is that there is incomplete information in individual minds. The need to act together, to be seen as cohesive, overrides the need to be explicit about group assumptions, desires, opinions, and even facts. Harvey calls this "action anxiety" and he believes it works in close conjunction with another piece of the paradox puzzle: negative fantasies. These are fantasies each individual harbours of what they think would happen if they actually spoke their minds and offered their desires or opinions to the group.

BREAKING THE CYCLE OF WRONG ASSUMPTIONS AND FEAR

Breaking the cycle that so often leads us to blaming each other for decisions and actions that we "knew" we did not agree with in the first place is critical to the health and effectiveness of an organization or work group. It can only be accomplished by building new communication habits and getting beyond our fears. Harvey believes that collusion motivates us to accept decisions and actions with which we fundamentally disagree or question. We submit to becoming victims by our own collusion with thinking that we believe to be wrong-headed or, at the very least, headed in the wrong direction. Avoiding "making a trip to Abilene" in our organizations takes the courageous act by each of us of both refusing to be victims and refusing to victimize others.

One of the modern-day problems we have revolves around something called "teamwork." Teamwork is a problem insofar as we do not define or carefully delineate behaviours related to effective teamwork–particularly those behaviours related to questioning and inquiring into proposed group decisions or acts. Team members often feel that if they do not agree with the group, particularly when they seem to be the only ones not agreeing, they will suffer by being alienated or "wrong." Helping team members learn how to question assumptions, their own included, can develop strong decision-making powers within the team. The team will then become much better at managing agreement.

PRACTICES THAT DEVELOP AGREEMENT SKILLS

Building new behaviours and working against personal fear can only go so far in helping groups or teams avoid needless "trips to Abilene." However, there are some practices that, if developed, can help individuals, groups, and teams become more proficient. The following practices and exercises can be found in Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook. The left-hand/right-hand column exercise was conceived of by Chris Argyris, Harvard University professor and consultant. It requires individuals to draw a line down the middle of a sheet of paper. At the top, right-hand side, the individual writes, "What is said," and at the top of the left side he or she writes, "What I’m thinking." Individuals can do this exercise after a meeting or simply reflect on previous situations to access their thinking and interaction process. Rick Ross and Art Kleiner, in their description of the tool, suggest some guiding questions to ask oneself during this reflexive exercise:

1. What has really led me to think and feel this way? 2. What was my intention? What was I trying to accomplish? 3. How did my comments contribute to group decision, action, confusion, or difficulty? 4. Why didn’t I say what was in my left-hand column? 5. What assumptions was I making about others in the group?

This tool helps to develop a better awareness of one’s reasons for speaking or for not speaking thoughts, and gives a format for sharing thoughts in a non-accusatory, nonjudgmental way with others. This tool is designed to be used as an individual discipline and awareness tool, not as a meeting management tool. Another practice is that of balancing advocacy with inquiry. Put simply, advocating a position, decision, or action needs to be balanced with genuine inquiry into the positions or opinions of others involved. An example that might have helped the Abilene group: the wife’s father could have left the door open to discover others’ real feelings by directly asking what the others were thinking, and by revealing why he was making the suggestion to go to Abilene. Doing so would have allowed others to understand his thinking pattern, and thus allow them to respond in a like manner. The Ladder of Inference, a tool also developed by Argyris, lets us see how we "infer" from someone’s actions or words what they really mean. Although we naturally make inferences all the time, knowing that we are doing it allows us to stop and ask others why they came to certain conclusions.

Finally, a little-practiced tool that groups can use is dialogue. Dialogue, as used here, is a term that was developed by a group of people working on organizational learning. It describes an open-ended exploration and discovery process that has no decision point. The point of this is to understand the subject, the data, the assumptions, the lack of information, etc. as deeply as possible. This technique allows groups to actually think together more effectively. The dialogue process and its contents (individual thoughts and feelings) are shared such that any future actions are more likely to be owned by the group. Building strong dialogue and advocacy/inquiry skills, as well as building confidence that one will not be alienated if one speaks one’s mind, are necessary for making the decision not to go to Abilene.
OTHER TRIPS TO ABILENE

The Abilene Paradox respects no individuals, organizations, or institutions. Consider two other "trips to Abilene" that illustrate both the pervasiveness of the paradox and its underlying dynamics.
Case 1: The Boardroom

The Ozyx Corporation is a relatively small industrial company that has embarked on a trip to Abilene. The president of Ozyx, has hired a consultant to help discover the reasons for the poor profit picture of the company in general and the low morale and productivity of the R&D division in particular. During the process of investigation, the consultant becomes interested in a research project in which the company has invested a sizable proportion of its R&D budget. When the consultant privately and separately asks the president, the vice-president for research, and the research manager, each describes the project as an idea that looked great on paper but will ultimately fail because of the unavailability of the technology required to make it work. Each of them also acknowledges that continued support of the project will create cash-flow problems that will jeopardize the very existence of the total organization.

Furthermore, each individual indicates that he has not told the others about his reservations. When asked why, the president says that he can't reveal his "true" feelings because abandoning the widely publicized project would make the company look bad in the press. In addition, candor on this issue would probably cause his vice president's ulcer to kick up or, perhaps, even cause him to quit, "because he has staked his professional reputation on the project's success. Similarly, the vice-president for research says that he can't let the president or the research manager know of his reservations because the president is so committed to it that "I would probably get fired for insubordination if I questioned the project." Finally, the research manager says that he can't let the president or vice-president know of his doubts about the project because of their extreme commitment to the project’s success. All indicate that, in meetings with one another, they try to maintain an optimistic facade so that the others won't worry unduly about the project. The research director, in particular, admits to writing ambiguous progress reports so that the president and the vice president can "interpret them to suit themselves." In fact, he says that he tends to slant them to the "positive" side, "given how committed the brasses are." The scent of the Abilene trail wafts from a panelled conference room where the project research budget is being considered for the following fiscal year. In the meeting itself, praises are heaped on the questionable project, and a unanimous decision is made to continue it for yet another year. 'This organization has boarded a bus to Abilene. Although the real issue of agreement finally was confronted only eight months after the bus departed, that was nearly too late. The organization failed to meet a payroll and underwent a two-year period of personnel cutbacks, retrenchments, and austerity. Morale suffered, the most competent technical personnel resigned, and the organization's prestige in the industry declined.

Case 2: Watergate

"Apart from the grave question of who did what, Watergate presents America with the profound puzzle of why;" says a May 27, 1973, editorial in the Washington Star and Daily News. 'The editor asks, "What is it that led such a wide assortment of men, many of them high public officials, possibly including the president himself, either to instigate or to go along with and later try to hide a pattern of behaviour that by now appears not only reprehensible, but stupid?" Perhaps a probe of the dynamics of the Abilene Paradox could answer the editor’s question.

However, I shall let readers reach their own conclusions on the basis of excerpts from testimony before the Senate investigating committee on "the Watergate Affair." In one exchange, Senator Howard Baker asked Herbert Porter, then a member of the White House staff, why he (Porter) found himself "in charge of or deeply involved in a dirty tricks operation of tile campaign." In response, Porter indicated that he had experienced qualms about what he was doing, but that he "was not one to stand up in a meeting and say that this should be stopped … I kind of drifted along." And when asked by Baker why he had "drifted along," Porter replied, "In all honesty, because of the fear of the group pressure that would ensue, of not being a team player … and "I felt a deep sense of loyalty to him [the president] or was appealed to on that basis."

Jeb Magruder gave a similar response to a question posed by committee counsel Dash. Specifically, when asked about his, Mr. Dean's, and Mr. Mitchell's reactions to Mr Liddy's proposal, which included bugging the Watergate, Mr. Magruder replied, "I think all three of us were appalled. The scope and size of the project were something that, at least in my mind, was not envisioned. I do not think it was in Mr. Mitchell's mind or Mr. Dean's, although I can't comment on their states of mind at that time." Mr. Mitchell, in his understated way of dealing with such difficult problems; indicated that this was not an "acceptable project."

Later in his testimony, Mr. Magruder said, "I think I can honestly say that no one was particularly overwhelmed with the project. But I think we felt that this information could be useful, and Mr. Mitchell agreed to approve the project, and I then notified the parties of Mr. Mitchell's approval.” Although I obviously was not privy to the private conversations of the principal characters, the data seem to reflect the essential elements of the Abilene Paradox. First, they indicate agreement. Evidently, Mitchell, Porter, Dean, and Magruder agreed that the plan was inappropriate. ("I think I can honestly say that no one was particularly overwhelmed with the project.") Second, the data indicate that the principal figures then proceeded to implement the plan in contradiction to their shared agreement. Third, the data surrounding the clearly indicate that the plan multiplied the organization's problems rather than solving them. And finally; the organization broke into subgroups, with the various principals-such as the president, Mitchell', Porter, Dean, and Magruder blaming one another for the dilemma in which they found themselves, and internecine warfare ensued. In summary, it is possible that because of the inability of White House staff members to cope with the fact that they agreed, the organization took a trip to Abilene.
ANALYZING THE PARADOX

The Abilene Paradox has been stated succinctly as follows: Organizations frequently take actions in contradiction to the data they have for dealing with problems and, as a result, compound their problems rather than solving them. Like all paradoxes, the Abilene Paradox deals with absurdity. On the surface, it makes little sense for organizations whether they are couples or companies, bureaucracies or governments to take actions that are diametrically opposed to the data they possess for solving crucial organizational problems. Such actions are particularly absurd because they compound the very problems they are designed to solve, thereby defeating the purposes the organization is trying to achieve. However, as Anatol Rapaport and others have so cogently expressed it, paradoxes are generally paradoxes only because they are based on a logic or rationale that is different from what we understand or expect.

Discovering the aberrant logic not only destroys the paradoxical quality but also offers alternative ways for coping with similar situations. Therefore, part of the dilemma facing an Abilene, bound organization may be the lack of a map, a theory or model that provides rationality to the paradox. Let us see if we can create such a map. The map will be developed by examining the underlying psychological themes of the profit - making organization and the bureaucracy, and it will include the following landmarks: 1. action anxiety; 2. negative fantasies; 3. real risk; 4. separation anxiety and 5. The psychological reversal of risk and certainty.

I hope that the discussion of such landmarks will provide harried organization travelers with a new map that will assist them in arriving at where they really want to go and, in addition, will help them assess the risks that are an inevitable part of the journey.
CONCLUSION

Institutions, corporations and other service agencies make decisions and take actions every day. Often these decisions and actions are based on a false sense of consensus within the group. To better avoid this, we need to have a clear definition of consensus and how it is reached. Our definition is: Consensus occurs when all key stakeholders build the decision, accept it, and support it, even though the final decision may not be the first preference of each individual member. In other words, consensus is not about voting!

We need to raise individual and group consciousness about the problems of not testing early and often for consensus. We need to build strong dialogue, inquiry, and advocacy skills and learn how to use them as is situational appropriate. And, finally, we need to learn how to avoid true loneliness by giving our thoughts and opinions voice and trusting the group with which we are working. An undesired and frustrating trip to Abilene in 104-degree heat should be a compelling image in our minds of the critical need to attend to how we manage agreement in libraries.
The following are all policies that can help to never take the trip to Abilene.

1. Job security and reciprocal obligation; 2. Day work. You can work at several places simultaneously and receive financial and emotional support from different sources; 3. The right to participate. The right to veto any decision that will negatively affect your employment; 4. The willingness to explore the ethical, moral and spiritual issues of management.

--------------------------------------------
[ 1 ]. Jerry B. Harvey, The Abilene Paradox and Other Meditations on Management (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1988). The original publication of the Abilene Paradox appeared as: "The Abilene Paradox: The Management of Agreement," in Organizational Dynamics (Summer 1974).
[ 2 ]. Peter Senge, et al., the Fifth Discipline Fieldbook: Strategies and Tools for Building a Learning Organization (New York: Doubleday, 1994).
[ 3 ]. Rick Ross and Art Kleiner, "The Left-Hand Column," in The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook, 246-50.
[ 4 ]. William Isaacs, "Dialogue," in The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook, 357-64.…...

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