December 9, 2021

TPL Insights: Building Peak-Performance Cultures #97 – How Agreement can Stifle Breakthrough Results and Great Decision Making, part 4

By Rob Andrews

With paraphrased content from The Abilene Paradox by Dr. Jerry Harvey published December 6, 2014

Real Conflict and Phony Conflict

In our final examination of the Abilene Paradox, we recognize that conflict is a part of every organization. Analysis of the Abilene paradox opens the possibility of two kinds of conflict—real and phony. On the surface, they look alike. But, like headaches, they have different causes and therefore require different treatment. Real conflict occurs when people have real differences.

Phony conflict, on the other hand, occurs when people agree on the actions they want to take, and then do the opposite. The resulting anger, frustration, and blaming behavior generally termed “conflict” are not based on real differences. Rather, they stem from the protective reactions that occur when a decision that no one believed in or was committed to in the first place goes sour. In fact, as a paradox within a paradox, such conflict is symptomatic of agreement!

Group Tyranny and Conformity

Understanding the dynamics of the Abilene Paradox also requires a “reorientation” in thinking about concepts such as “group tyranny”— the loss of the individual’s distinctiveness in a group, and the impact of conformity pressures on individual behavior in organizations. Group tyranny and its result, individual conformity, generally refer to the coercive effect of group pressures on individual behavior.

Sometimes referred to as Groupthink, it has been damned as the cause for everything from the lack of creativity in organizations (“A camel is a horse designed by a committee”) to antisocial behavior in juveniles (“My Johnny is a good boy. He was just pressured into shoplifting by the kids he runs around with”). However, analysis of the dynamics underlying the Abilene Paradox opens up the possibility that individuals frequently perceive and feel as if they are experiencing the coercive organization conformity pressures when, in actuality, they are responding to the dynamics of mismanaged agreement.

Conceptualizing, experiencing, and responding to such experiences as reflecting the tyrannical pressures of a group again serves as an important psychological use for the individual: As was previously said, it releases him from the responsibility of taking action and thus becomes a defense for inaction. Thus, much behavior within an organization that heretofore has been conceptualized as reflecting the tyranny of conformity pressures is really an expression of collective anxiety and therefore must be reconceptualized as a defense against acting.

A well-known example of such faulty conceptualization comes to mind. It involves the heroic sheriff in the classic Western movies who stands alone in the jailhouse door and single-handedly protects a suspected (and usually innocent) horse thief or murderer from the irrational, tyrannical forces of group behavior—that is, an armed lynch mob. Generally, as a part of the ritual, he threatens to blow off the head of anyone who takes a step toward the door. Few ever take the challenge, and the reason is not the sheriff’s six-shooter. What good would one pistol be against an armed mob of several hundred people who really want to hang somebody?

Thus, the gun in fact serves as a face-saving measure for people who don’t wish to participate in a hanging anyway. (“We had to back off. The sheriff threatened to blow our heads off.”) The situation is one involving agreement management, for a careful investigator canvassing the crowd under conditions in which the anonymity of the interviewees’ responses could be guaranteed would probably find: (1) that few of the individuals in the crowd really wanted to take part in the hanging; (2) that each person’s participation came about because he perceived, falsely, that others wanted to do so; and (3) that each person was afraid that others in the crowd would ostracize or in some other way punish him if he did not go along.

Diagnosing the Paradox

Most individuals like quick solutions, “clean” solutions, “no risk” solutions to organization problems. Furthermore, they tend to prefer solutions based on mechanics and technology, rather than on attitudes of “being.” Unfortunately, the underlying reality of the paradox makes it impossible to provide either no-risk solutions or action technologies divorced from existential attitudes and realities.

Dr. Harvey does, however, offer two sets of suggestions for dealing with these situations. One set of suggestions relates to diagnosing the situation, the other to confronting it. When faced with the possibility that the paradox is operating, one must first make a diagnosis of the situation, and the key to diagnosis is an answer to the question, Is the organization involved in a conflict-management or an agreement-management situation? As an organization member, Jerry found it relatively easy to make a preliminary diagnosis as to whether an organization is on the way to Abilene or is involved in legitimate, substantive conflict by responding to the Diagnostic Survey shown in the accompanying figure.

Organizational Diagnostic Survey

Instructions: For each of the following statements please indicate whether it is or is not characteristic of your organization.

  1. There is conflict in the organization.
  2. Organization members feel frustrated, impotent, and unhappy when trying to deal with it. Many are looking for ways to escape. They may avoid meetings at which the conflict is discussed, they may be looking for other jobs, or they may spend as much time away from the office as possible by taking unneeded trips or vacation or sick leave.
  3. Organization members place much of the blame for the dilemma on the boss or other groups. In “back room” conversations among friends the boss is termed incompetent, ineffective, “out of touch,” or a candidate for early retirement. To his face, nothing is said, or at best, only oblique references are made concerning his role in the organization’s problems. If the boss isn’t blamed, some other group, division, or unit is seen as the cause of the trouble: “We would do fine if it were not for the damn fools in Division X.”
  4. Small subgroups of trusted friends and associates meet informally over coffee, lunch, and so on to discuss organizational problems. There is a lot of agreement among the members of these subgroups as to the cause of the troubles and the solutions that would be effective in solving them. Such conversations are frequently punctuated with statements beginning with, “We should do . . .”
  5. In meetings where those same people meet with members from other subgroups to discuss the problem, they “soften their positions,” state them in ambiguous language, or even reverse them to suit the apparent positions taken by others.
  6. After such meetings, members complain to trusted associates that they really didn’t say what they wanted to say, but also provide a list of convincing reasons why the comments, suggestions, and reactions they wanted to make would have been impossible. Trusted associates commiserate and say the same was true for them.
  7. Attempts to solve the problem do not seem to work. In fact, such attempts seem to add to the problem or make it worse.
  8. Outside the organization, individuals seem to get along better, be happier, and operate more effectively than they do within it

If the answer to the first question is “not characteristic,” the organization is probably not in Abilene or conflict. If the answer is “characteristic,” the organization has a problem of either real or phony conflict, and the answers to the succeeding questions help to determine which it is.

In brief, for reasons that should be apparent from the theory discussed here, the more times “characteristic” is checked, the more likely the organization is on its way to Abilene. In practical terms, a process for managing agreement is called for. And finally, if the answer to the first question falls into the “characteristic” category and most of the other answers fall into the category “not characteristic,” one may be relatively sure the organization is in a real conflict situation and some sort of conflict management intervention is in order.

Since our work is all about helping build cultures of peak performance, we often draw on Jerry’s work. As the Abilene Paradox is alive and well in many organizations, I encourage you to read Jerry’s books as we have found them incredibly valuable. The easiest and most entertaining is The Abilene Paradox. The other, which will really make your head explode, is How Come Every Time I get Stabbed in the Back My Fingerprints are on the Knife? The title alone should cause you to drop what you’re doing and order the book. Next week we’ll conclude this series on the Abilene Paradox. Since time and space preclude me from sharing all of Jerry’s wisdom, I’ll invite you to give us a call.

Warmest Regards,

Rob Andrews
Allen Austin
Consultants in Retained Search & Leadership Advisory