Have you ever sat in a meeting or some other gathering where a decision is being made that you don’t particularly agree with?  You maybe heard one of your inner voices say “wait a minute – that doesn’t feel right”.  The group consensus appears to be saying “yes”, but then you maybe start to feel uncomfortable about being the sole voice who says “no”.

This is quite a common occurrence and is referred to as the Abilene Paradox, named by Dr Jerry Harvey.  Abilene is a small town in Texas in the USA and is used as a metaphor to describe a destination to where all members of a family verbally agreed to travel, but internally they all have misgivings about going there.  The point is that as individuals we tend to mistakenly believe that our opinion is in the minority and as such we might not want to voice our opinion for fear that we might “rock the boat”.

Why bother?

Think about it for a moment, who wants to be the party pooper, the kill-joy being accused of not being a team player just because they have a different opinion.  It’s part of our human condition to want to be part of the group as Maslow identified in his hierarchy of needs, so why go to the bother of isolating ourselves when maybe if we kept our mouths shut maybe things will work out OK in the end.

Of course, this is not always the case because there are a few individuals in every organisation who have the courage of their convictions and do speak out.  However these Lightning Rods, as I refer to them because they take on the wrath of God or the leaders, tend to get a bit of a name for themselves and end up with limited career options.

Managing Agreement over Managing Conflict

Many management theorists talk about this particular problem as that of Managing Agreement over Managing Conflict.  The great thing about conflict is its visibility.  If we can see the conflict we can help to resolve or manage it.  But what about the false agreements that are made in organisations every day that may have widespread and long-lasting impacts.  People may mutter and grumble about “that’s the way things are around here” and may become very cynical about their ability to change opinions or reverse decisions.  This is why the Agile value of courage is most important in organisations, people do need to have the courage of their convictions to voice their opinions.

What’s the Solution?

Ultimately however, my belief is that the solution to this particular problem is a leadership one.  Leaders need to become more aware of the power of group dynamics and the effects that it has on the individuals in an organisation.  If leaders can find a way to allow true dialogue in their organisation that encourages a spirit of inquiry in their teams and groups, this would allow differences of opinion to emerge and who knows how this may benefit everyone concerned.

Many leaders may be unaware of how they surround themselves with “yes -people” or how the power of their personality may overwhelm people to the point that others cannot provide the diversity of opinions that may be needed for an organisation to break out of a slump or to make a meaningful difference in the marketplace.  All too often I have seen leaders become consumed with their own importance and lose sense of reality.  They may say that they value other peoples opinions but they may be quite shocked to discover that they have unwittingly given a covert message that disagreement will not be tolerated.  When that happens, very soon the organisation will suffer and so will its people.

Leaders – Be the Change

So if you are a leader reading this and you have decided to embrace an Agile culture in your organisation, please know that there will most likely be changes needed with you and other leaders in the organisation and not just the delivery teams and people in the front-line.  An Agile organisation requires a different form and style of leadership than a bureaucratic one.  As Gandhi was famously misquoted as saying “Be the change”.