Along the Road to Abilene and other trips that I’d rather forget…
I have to admit, I roared with laughter at the father-in-law’s reaction in The Abilene Paradox: The Management of Agreement. In this scenario, I heard the Texas drawl of Matthew McConaughey when reading of the father’s explosion. Afterall, who wouldn’t wish to venture through the dust and soaring heat of West Texas? I roll my eyes and sigh thinking of the number incidents in my life that have occurred as a result of “agreement issues.” Members of both my immediate and extended family could be the members of this family who were unable to manage their agreement.
This training video doesn’t do justice the scenario painted by Jerry P. Harvey. This collection certainly shows how easy it is for one to become engulfed in a crisis of agreement. Like Harvey, my experience is not atypical of many family and work settings. I know that I have agreed with ideas, practices or decisions that I know full well that I did not endorse. What causes me to act this way? What has prevented the institutions where I work or the non-profit organizations where I volunteer to take this trip?
Action Anxiety: Is it possible that there’s someone out there who hasn’t worked on a project that s/he knew wouldn’t work? Voicing an opinion that goes against the grain of authority costs. Sometimes the cost is simply negative reactions or being removed from a coveted program or being denied a leadership role. Having one’s office moved to the bowels of the building or having desired furnishings removed and given to an “agreeable” employee makes a strong statement. The price to be paid for acting in a way that is congruent with my feelings has certainly cause anxiety in the past. I’ve paid for my lack of agreement in the past, which has forced me to think carefully about the cost of not agreeing each time a situation arises. When I consider the cost of doing so, it’s certainly plausible that I have cultivated some unwarranted anxiety.
Negative Fantasies: Agreement certainly happens in family and friend situations. When I was a young person, articulating a sensible action with little regard for the larger group was plausible. As an adult, the fantasy of breaking a family member or friend’s heart does produce anxiety. An invitation to dinner, an activity, or worse, an all expense paid vacation does activate anxiety. I have most definitely taken a “Trip to Abilene” in the last several years in order to be cooperative, to show appreciation for the generosity of others as well as a desire to keep the peace. Expressing an opinion that differed from others has often labeled me uncooperative, someone who enjoys rocking the boat. Unlike feedback in academic settings, feedback is not always “a gift!” (smile)
Real risk and Fear of Separation: Quite frankly, I can’t say that I’ve experienced any setting where I have gone to Abilene and not run the risk of going somewhere worse or the fear of being separated from a group. My mode of operandi would be to jump ship rather than go down with the rest of the organization. I watch from the sidelines and shake my head. Perhaps this is one of the benefit of being a square peg in a round hole?
People Talk: It’s universal-when the meeting adjourns, members leave two-by-two, head joined in conversation. I know from experience that the conversation about the “agreement” focuses on what the individuals did not really agree upon. Been there…done that…
Collusion: Everyone in the group agrees upon the book to be read for the next book club, or the trip to take to the museum. When it comes time for people to show up, attendance is either poor and the trip is a flop, or the group mopes and drags their heels. Individuals read a book they never wanted to read and find it difficult to contribute to the conversation. In an instance such as this, agreement drags the group down rather than unifying and strengthening it.
So who is responsible for getting out of a situation where a group may fall into agreement issues? Harvey contends that the necessary leverage is NOT found in the hierarchy, but rather in the membership. The image of the little boy in the classic tale by Hans Christian Anderson, The Emperor’s New Clothes, comes to mind when I think about leverage. Everyone in the village agrees that the new suit of clothes created by two weavers is the finest that they’ve ever seen. Only one small child had the courage to act upon his convictions. Perhaps he is the necessary leverage for a village of adult who can not act upon their convictions?