On the Road to Abilene

by Marcia Zidle, Featured Contributor

IT’S A HOT sultry Texas day, everyone sitting on the front porch comfortably playing dominoes. Dad says, “Anyone want to go to Abilene for dinner?”

AbileneEveryone agrees; they have a miserable ride, a lousy dinner and a miserable ride back. As it turns out no one wanted to go but no one wanted to disagree thinking, “I don’t want to rock the boat.”

This a true family story written by management expert Jerry B. Harvey. He started to wonder:

Why does this happen? Why do work groups, management teams or boards embark on excursions that most members don’t want to take?

Many believe that managing conflict is one of the greatest challenges faced by organizations but Harvey suggested that it’s the inability to manage agreement that causes groups and organizations to get on the Road to Abilene – on the wrong track or side-tracked.

Have You Experienced It?

For example, you individually, or part of a small group, agree privately (in the parking lot or cafeteria) about the situation or problem and what steps should be taken to deal with it. However, you fail to accurately communicate your thoughts to others. You’re thinking:

I don’t want to say anything for fear of hurting Mary.” Or “Why would ‘they” believe me?” Or, “I may get my head chopped off if I disagree with Joe.”

With such incomplete or inaccurate information, groups make collective decisions that lead them to take actions contrary to what they want to do. Thus, the family went to Abilene when they preferred to stay home and do something else.

As a result of going along with the crowd, people experience frustration, anger or irritation because they know that what they’re doing is not getting them to where they want to go.

Then this happens: Dissatisfied and disgruntled, people form into subgroups with likeminded folks and start blaming others for the problems they’re experiencing – missed deadlines, lower customer satisfaction, decease in productivity and management’s panic.

What’s the Solution?

Organizations, large and small – profit and non-profit – make decisions and take actions every day. Often these decisions and actions are based on a false sense of consensus within the group.

Consensus occurs when all key stakeholders (group members and other important players) together 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!

It’s about managing the decision making process – asking questions, listening to answers, accepting different perspectives, testing for agreement early an often, managing disagreement when it occurs and then facilitating the group to make a decision that people will accept and implement.

Smart Moves Tip:

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 our team, department, business unit or projects. Learn to recognize the warning signs of risky group dynamics and improve decision-making processes throughout your organization.

Do you have your own “on the road to Abilene” story? I think most of us have. Share it with others.


Marcia Zidle
Marcia Zidle
Marcia Zidle, The Smart Moves Coach, is a national known board certified coach and keynote leadership speaker who guides organizations that are planning, or in the midst of, ambitious growth and change. As a career strategist, she works with professionals, managers and executives who want to build • shape • brand • change • vitalize their careers. She’s been selected by LinkedIn’s ProFinder as one of the best coaches for 2016!Her clients range from private owned businesses to mid-market companies to professional service firms to NGO’s. With 25 years of management, business consulting and international experience, she brings an expertise in executive and team leadership; employee engagement and innovation; personal and organization change; career building and development; emotional and social intelligence. Your Future Starts Now With Marcia!

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