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Disagree more

Most people try their best to manage conflict. And while at it, they fail to manage agreement. When in fact agreement has its own hazards.

True story

Harvey found himself in a sticky situation during a scorching hot heatwave in Texas. His father-in-law suggested going for dinner in Abilene, which was 53 miles away, and even though Harvey didn't really want to go, he went along with it because his wife and mother-in-law were keen on the idea.

But guess what? When they got back home, everyone was hot and irritated, and it turned out that no one actually wanted to go to Abilene!

Harvey's mother-in-law admitted she thought it was a terrible idea from the start, and even Harvey and his wife confessed they didn't really want to go either. They just agreed to avoid rocking the boat since everyone else seemed enthusiastic. Even Harvey's father-in-law admitted he didn't really want to travel in the unairconditioned car, he just suggested it because he thought everyone was getting bored.

Harvey, or Jerry B. Harvey in full, is a professor of management science at George Washington University in D.C. Following this small adventure, he coined this effect whereby people avoid conflict as the Abilene paradox in his 1974 article The Abilene Paradox: The Management of Agreement. At the time, most managerial advice was focused on how to better manage conflict. Instead, Harvey argued that in modern organizations, learning how to deal with agreement is more pressing!

How we end up making bad choices The #1 danger in decision-making under uncertainty is arguably overconfidence. Accompanying this tendency, there are various effects that cause us to favor information that confirms our existing positions and assumptions. Confirmation bias (how we give greater weight to information that agrees with your preconceived beliefs), the IKEA Effect (where we perceive things we create as of higher quality), and the Fundamental Attribution Error (where we attribute our failures to bad luck and others' failures to lack of skill). As a consequence, we often fail to recognize the possibility of being wrong or exploring alternative perspectives, leading to inadequate planning and unrealistic assessments of our chances. These biases can be even more pronounced in team settings, where phenomena like the Abilene Paradox and Groupthink can impact the willingness of teams to consider alternatives. Groupthink arises when the desire for harmony or conformity overrides critical evaluation of differing viewpoints, resulting in irrational or dysfunctional decision-making. Group members prioritize agreement over constructive dissent, often suppressing dissenting opinions and disregarding potential issues. And as we've seen, the Abilene Paradox occurs when a group collectively agrees on a course of action that goes against the preferences of any individual member, resulting in a decision that each individual member actually dislikes! These biases all share a common theme of favoring information that confirms preconceived notions, suppressing dissent, and limiting the exploration of diverse perspectives. Unsurprisingly, they can lead to sub-optimal, often times really bad, decisions.

How to ensure people speak up: Two ways

  1. Hold productive meetings where input and participation from all the members is equally encouraged. At the meetings, give all participants a right to and invitation to speak. But also invite missing participants to chime in, setting an expectation that all voices are needed. Use anonymous polls to make it easy to express an opinion without fear of being singled out. Have people convene in smaller groups first (snowball method) in order to encourage introverts to share their opinions. Establish rules that encourage participation such as urging everyone to keep their contributions short and to the point, to contain the more talkative participant from dominating.

  2. Build psychological safety. Team psychological safety is a shared belief held by members of a team that it’s OK to take risks, to express their ideas and concerns, to speak up with questions, and to admit mistakes — all without fear of negative consequences. As Amy Edmondson puts it, “it’s felt permission for candor.” This sense of safety and willingness to speak up is not an individual trait but a group trait, even though it’s something you do feel and experience at the individual level. There’s a simple 7-item questionnaire to assess the perception of psychological safety within your team. How people answer these questions will give you a sense of the degree to which they feel psychologically safe:

1. If you make a mistake on this team, it is not held against you.

2. Members of this team are able to bring up problems and tough issues.

3. People on this team sometimes accept others for being different.

4. It is safe to take a risk on this team.

5. It isn’t difficult to ask other members of this team for help.

6. No one on this team would deliberately act in a way that undermines my efforts.

7. Working with members of this team, my unique skills and talents are valued and utilized.

Question for you

What's one thing you disagreed with today but didn't express yourself? Can you express your disagreement in a non-offensive way?

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