Forget conflict: Agreement can cause even bigger problems

Forget conflict: Agreement can cause even bigger problems

Brian Conrad discusses “the Abilene paradox” during Managers' Retreat at CVC in Kansas City.
Aug 26, 2010
By staff

One hot summer afternoon, organizational researcher Jerry P. Harvey was visiting his in-laws in Coleman, Texas. When the subject of what to do for dinner came up, Harvey’s father-in-law suggested piling in the car and driving to the city of Abilene, 50-plus miles away, to eat at the local café. The others agreed and made the hot, dusty trip in a non-air-conditioned Buick.

After dinner the family returned to Coleman and the front porch, where Harvey’s mother-in-law confessed that she hadn’t wanted to go to Abilene at all—she just went along with the idea to please everyone else. Well, it turned out that no one had wanted to make that miserable drive, but no one spoke up. Harvey eventually came to describe situations in which everyone agrees publically but disagrees privately as “the Abilene paradox.” And Brian Conrad, CVPM, manager of Meadow Hills Veterinary Center in Kennewick, Wash., says it’s a problem that plagues veterinary practices.

Here are some of the reasons people make “the trip to Abilene,” according to a video on the subject Conrad showed during the Veterinary Economics Managers' Retreat in Kansas City:

> Action anxiety: It’s easier to do nothing than to do something.

> Negative fantasies: People predict that the worst possible outcome will result from their decision to speak out.

> Real risk: Sometimes our decision to voice disagreement can have negative consequences that are real.

> Fear of separation: No one wants to be ostracized as a result of their actions.

However, refusing to voice opposition to an idea or situation can have more destructive results than keeping quiet out of fear. Here’s how to “skip the trip”:

> Assess the real risks: Consider what will happen if you do nothing and what will happen if you do something.

> Own up to your beliefs: Say what you really think and feel about a situation without assigning blame or attributing your beliefs to anyone else.

> Confront the group: Dare to speak out loud what you suspect everyone has already silently agreed on.

Once everyone’s actual attitudes and feelings are out in the open, the sense of relief in the room will be palpable. With the energy released in that moment, you and your team can turn your focus to finding solutions to the real problem that confronts you. Bye, bye, Abilene!