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Combat the Abilene Paradox by Identifying Groupthink

By Todd Ballowe

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Combat the Abilene Paradox by Identifying Groupthink

Earlier this week, we looked at the Abilene Paradox- a trap that groups often find themselves in when making decisions.  The paradox, a common pitfall of group decision-making, can be identified by looking out for the red flags discussed in the post, but how do you guard against it?

  • Identify Groupthink signals within your organization. Common signals include:
    • Failure to create a plan B
    • Excessive rationalization of decisions
    • Pressure to conform
    • Self-censorship of alternate opinions
  • Make room for disagreement
    • Encourage your people to stand up for their convictions
    • Know how to manage conflict and keep it healthy
  • Avoid language that plays on our tendency to agree with groups, such as:
    • “Is anyone vehemently opposed to this?” Anyone slightly opposed won’t speak up
    • “So we all agree, right?” Instead ask if anyone has anything to add
    • “Where are your pom-poms, Ted?” If Ted offered constructive criticism, he probably won’t do it again
  • Don’t use “rule by committee” where everyone must agree
    • People are incentivized to agree, even if they inwardly don’t believe in the idea
    • Unanimous agreement is rare and requires an inordinate amount of time to reach
  • Re-configure groups
    • Subgroups
    • Different leaders
  • Create avenues for staff to voice their opinion
    • Anonymous Hotlines
    • Ask people on-on one
    • Blatantly ask if it’s a “trip to Abilene”

We all want to avoid pouring our resources into bad ideas. By putting in the effort to root out groupthink, you will not only become a more effective leader, but your team will be more motivated and will have more reason to take ownership of the projects they work on.


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