In the world today, whether it be in Europe, Asia, Africa, your community, or your church, opportunities for conflict are multiplying. We view this conflict as a clash of different values, opinions, or cultures. From that perspective, whether it is ethnic, religious, political, or personal differences, the conflict has the potential for harmful consequences.
As leaders, we are focused mostly on transforming conflict into positive action so that everyone can move forward together. That work is good and needed. But have you considered the conflict of everyone agreeing without question or challenge?
Conflict of Agreement
I remember meetings when project decisions moved forward without question to only be confronted after the meeting by persons who were disappointed and upset. When I asked why there were no questions for clarity or challenges to the decisions, I received answers like, “I didn’t want people to think that I was disagreeing with them,” or “I didn’t want to rock the boat.” As a leader, have you considered the conflict created when people say they agree but do not want what has been agreed upon?”
This kind of conflict is called the Abilene Paradox. The paradox arises when a group of people collectively decide on a course of action that is opposite to the information or research they have in front of them. It involves a common breakdown of trust and communication in which each member mistakenly believes that his or her own thoughts, feelings, or knowledge is counter to the group’s thoughts, feelings, and knowledge. People even give support for an outcome they do not want. They don’t want to “rock the boat.” They don’t want to go against group decisions.
Leading into and through conflict means not only assisting people through disagreements but recognizing that agreements might also be a problem in unhealthy group dynamics.
Are You Going to Abilene?
The Paradox was named by Dr. Jerry B. Harvey, professor emeritus of management science at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C. Dr. Harvey tells the story of visiting his in-laws in Coleman, Texas on a hot summer afternoon in the late 1950s. The family had gathered on the porch, staying cool by sitting in front of a fan and sipping lemonade. While playing dominoes, Harvey’s father-in-law suggested that they take a trip to Abilene for dinner. Abilene was fifty-three miles away.
Harvey’s wife said, “Sounds like a great idea.”
And Harvey, despite having reservations about the drive because of its length and the heat, thinking that his preferences must be out-of-step with the group said, “Sounds good to me. I just hope your mother wants to go.”
His mother-in-law then said, “Of course I want to go. I haven’t been to Abilene in a long time.”
Going Along for the Ride
Harvey said the drive was hot, dusty, and long in an unairconditioned car. When they arrived at the cafeteria, the food was as bad as the drive. When they finally got back home four hours later, exhausted from the 106-mile round trip, Harvey dishonestly said, “It was a great trip, wasn’t it?”
His mother-in-law said that she would have rather stayed home but went along since the other three were so enthusiastic.
Harvey said, “I really didn’t want to go either. I only went to satisfy the rest of you.”
His wife said, “I just went along to keep you happy. It was crazy to want to go out in the heat like that.”
Then Harvey’s father-in-law said, “I only suggested it because I thought all of you were bored.”
They all sit back perplexed that they together decided to take a trip that no one wanted to take. They each preferred to sit comfortably on the porch, being cooled by a fan, and eating leftovers. But not one of them said so when they thought the others wanted to go to Abilene.
Hesitant and Reluctant
The Abilene Paradox reveals that people are often hesitant and reluctant to act contrary to their friends or the direction of the group to which they place value. In other words, we create our own stress, based on stories we tell ourselves because we are concerned that we might be rejected by the group if we don’t go along. So, being motivated by the fear of exclusion, we set aside honesty and truth and “travel to Abilene.”
Real and Phony Conflict
As a leader, you navigate and help transform different forms of conflict. What the Abilene Paradox opens is 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. Individuals come to different conclusions based on the information presented. Conflict is often experienced in the struggle between groups who have differing opinions on social issues, different theological viewpoints, or groups seeking support for their projects when funds are limited.
Conflict of Agreement
Phony conflict occurs when people agree on the actions they want to take and then do the opposite. The anger, frustration, and blaming behavior that follows is not based on real differences. The conflict arises when a decision that no one believed in or was committed to create anxiety and tension.
It is a conflict of agreement, not because everyone agrees based on true data, but because they do not want to be contrary to the group. You might find this kind of agreement to avoid the struggle of differing opinions on social issues or different theological viewpoints. People tend to agree to follow the group decision, not because they agree but because they don’t want to lose friends or be perceived as being troublemakers for the group.
It is often more difficult to lead through the conflict of agreement than the real conflict. As the leader, you can create an atmosphere in which people feel trusted and empowered to speak up with courage and integrity.
Leading Through a Conflict of Agreement
To lead through the conflict of agreement:
1. Be yourself
God created you and gifted you to lead at a time like this. With humility and without insisting on your own way, trust your instincts. Model integrity and authenticity.
2. Be truthful about the current reality
Where you start makes a difference. Being truthful about your context helps in creating a solid starting place. Often people will agree to travel to Abilene to avoid facing reality.
3. Keep your mission clearly in focus
Your mission is your purpose. One sure way not to detour to Abilene is to keep your destination clearly in front of the people entrusted to your care.
4. Be curious
Ask questions. Your curiosity creates an atmosphere of openness. By asking questions you set an example for others. One question to always ask is, “What questions do you have concerning the direction we are going?”
5. Take others seriously
It is helpful to imagine what people are thinking and feeling. Don’t assume you understand all the facts. Set aside your assumptions. What questions will you ask to understand others’ perspectives?
6. Listen carefully
Practice active listening. Give your full attention and reflect thoughtfully. Use empathy to connect. Rephrase, restate, and summarize so people know you have heard them. When you don’t understand, ask for examples to clarify the issue.
7. Communicate Clearly
Remember that clear is kind. Be clear in your statements and be aware of how you are perceived in what you say and do. If appropriate, tell Jerry Harvey’s story of traveling to Abilene then ask, “Who feels like you are traveling to Abilene?” What do you think we should consider?
8. Be Generous
Provide useful and genuine feedback. Give people the benefit of your best thoughts and responses. Be open to receiving feedback.
Your Next Step
You have what it takes to lead through the conflict of agreement. This week, contact a trusted colleague or friend and discuss the Abilene Paradox. Share examples of times you have seen it at work. As you share your examples, using the list above, discuss what you might have done to avoid the trip to Abilene.
Your discussion and interaction will help you become more the leader needed for navigating the conflict of these days in which you are leading.
Please know how grateful I am for you and your leadership. May you be blessed through your relationships and interactions this week.
Remember, who you are is how you lead.