Alfred Sloan, the legendary CEO of General Motors, was leery of speedy agreement. If his management team quickly and unanimously agreed on a course of action, he would respond: “I propose we postpone further discussion of this matter until our next meeting, to give ourselves time to develop disagreement and perhaps gain understanding of what the decision is all about.”
In essence, he was managing agreement, something we wouldn’t ordinarily think must be questioned or tampered with. We gleefully grab agreement when it’s available. But George Washington University management professor Jerry Harvey argued managing agreement is a bigger problem for leaders than managing discord. He illustrated it through a timeless story, The Abilene Paradox, in which everybody goes along with a decision that is wrong-headed.
It was a sweltering July afternoon in Coleman, Tex., with the wind blowing topsoil through the house. Everybody was drinking lemonade and playing dominoes. Suddenly, Mr. Harvey’s father-in-law suggested they head to Abilene for dinner at the cafeteria. Mr. Harvey’s first thought was why travel 53 miles in a car that wasn’t air-conditioned for indifferent food?
But his wife chimed in, “Sounds like a great idea. I’d like to go. How about you, Jerry?” Feeling out of step, he did what so many of us do in organizations and social situations: He went along. “Sounds good to me,” he said. “I just hope your mother wants to go.” She did, and so off they went.
Four hours and 106 miles later, having consumed food fit for an anti-acid commercial, they were back in Coleman, hot and exhausted. To be sociable and break the silence, he dishonestly said, “It was a great trip, wasn’t it?” No one spoke. Then finally his mother-in-law admitted, “Well, to tell the truth, I really didn’t enjoy it much and would rather have stayed here. I just went along because the three of you were so enthusiastic about going. I wouldn’t have gone if you all hadn’t pressured me into it.”
It unravelled from there. Recriminations filled the air. Agreement was but a memory.
The Abilene Paradox occurs when organizations blunder into actions that contradict what they want to do and therefore defeat the purpose they are trying to achieve. Groups that fail to manage agreement typically display six symptoms that were in play that day the family went to Abilene.
Organization members agree in private about the nature of the situation or problem facing the organization. They also individually agree in private about what steps would be required to cope with the situation or problem (in this case, stay at home and play dominoes). But they fail to accurately communicate their desires or beliefs publicly. With such invalid and inaccurate information, the group makes a decision that leads to actions contrary to what they want. And as a result, people experience frustration, anger, irritation and dissatisfaction with the organization. “If organization members do not deal with the generic issue – the inability to manage agreement – the cycle repeats itself with greater intensity,” he warned.
Doubt can help, but only when expressed. That’s what Alfred Sloan was doing: Giving time for doubt to surface – to understand the complexities better. Doubt, however, can be unpleasant, so we resist it. Record producer Adam Cohen, speaking of putting together The Last Dance, a posthumous collection of songs and poems by his father Leonard Cohen, referred “to the tragic layer of doubt” in decision-making. He got over that by not grappling with his own doubts but thinking solely of what his fabled father liked and hated.
Doubt is rarely celebrated. It can haunt us personally. It’s seen as a sign of a poor leader. Instead, leaders are supposed to be confident to the point of fearlessness. But that can be dangerous. “If you don’t doubt yourself in a constructive, positive way,” one participant in a year-long global study for the World Economic Forum said of CEOs, “you are borderline dangerous for your company.” Or your country: One-time U.S. vice-president Walter Mondale felt that former defence secretary Donald McNamara viewed every problem as an equation with data that produced a definitive solution. “Even when he expressed doubt, there was no actual doubt in his mind,” Mr. Mondale told Senate staffer David T. S. Jonas in 2009.
Bonnie Gwin, vice-chairman of executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles, says doubt should be understood as a challenge of both knowledge and emotion. Knowledge can fall anywhere on a continuum from fully not knowing to full knowledge. Feelings of doubt can fall anywhere between anxiety and fearlessness. “How much knowledge do you have when you face a difficult decision? How anxious do you feel? How might you use your uncertainty as a tool?” she asks.
Thinking about doubt along those two dimensions offers four possible combinations. Having little knowledge and no fear is perhaps the most dangerous combination, with hubris possible – charging blindly ahead, despite what you don’t know. High knowledge and no fear seems ideal but a false sense of security can land you in deep trouble. With high knowledge and high anxiety, a deep-seated fear could arise that prevents you from pursuing a course of action you are convinced is right. Low knowledge and high anxiety is the worst of both worlds, likely to generate maximum doubt. “The risk is paralysis – an unaffordable risk when a decision must be made despite the state of your knowledge or your emotions,” he notes.
So manage doubt. And manage agreement. View uncertainty and disagreement as tools.
- Evaluate your doubts by listing your problems, insecurities and mental hackles on one side of a sheet of paper and beside them marking down if each is based on facts or feelings, consultant Scott Greenberg recommends in his book, The Wealthy Franchisee.
- The return to the office will dissatisfy some employees who prefer working remotely or if their company stays remote or partially remote would have preferred being back with everyone every day. That makes the forthcoming period a great period for recruiting excellent employees dissatisfied with their organization’s choice, advises recruiting specialist John Sullivan.
- Blogger Shane Parrish argues great decision-makers are not necessarily good problem solvers but are masterful problem avoiders.
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