The Abilene Paradox: Dare to Disagree

By Robyn Undieme | March 19, 2015

Have you ever gone along with a decision because you thought everyone else was in agreement, and later you find out that others also disagreed but no one spoke up because they didn't want to be the odd man out?

Last year, I had the opportunity to participate in a Leadership Tulsa class. Leadership Tulsa is a program where a diverse group of Tulsans come together once a month to talk about authentic leadership and learn more about Tulsa; the goal being to become increasingly involved in community service and volunteerism.

Many different themes are covered during the year-long class. I remember a video called The Road to Abilene that was shown to my class one year and it dealt with a paradox. The story features a fictional family of four adults who live in the country. The family makes the long drive to Abilene, Texas for dinner night after night during the hot summer, in a car with no air conditioning.

No one in the family wants to drive all the way to Abilene for dinner, but they each go along assuming the others want to make the trip. No one speaks up because they don't want to be seen as being "disagreeable." Finally, after returning to their country home, one member is frustrated enough to finally say what is really on his mind; only to discover that the rest of the family felt the exact same way.

I'm sure we can all relate. We say yes to an idea because we think it's what everyone else wants or it's the way it's always been done. In reality, we say yes to something that not everyone in the group may really be sold on.

I have to wonder how often this happens here at the City. What keeps us from asking, "Why do we do it this way," or saying, "I disagree and here's why?" Somehow, our human brains have been programed to think that asking questions will lead others to thinking we're not intelligent. We fear that by expressing alternate opinions it will be perceived as offensive. Granted, perhaps some of that has to do with how our opinions are communicated, but in general, asking questions and expressing alternate opinions is not a threat to our organizational culture; rather, it's an instigator to improved performance and innovation.

Many of the ideas that end up getting shared with the MAAP are not just ideas; they're GREAT ideas! MAAP is eager to provide a platform to you to communicate your ideas on why and how and what if type questions. We want to be your guides on a journey for positive change in your work life.

Do you have an idea that will streamline a process, or have you identified a way the City can earn additional revenue, or even save money? Please reach out to us. MAAP genuinely wants to hear your ideas.

I'm including a great TED Talk video with this blog, called Dare to Disagree. I appreciate how the speaker, Margaret Heffernan, reframes disagreeing into thinking. Don't ever stop thinking. The best culture to work in is one where employees are encouraged to disagree and ask, "How can we do this better?"

To share your idea(s) with MAAP, you can contact us directly through IDEA Basecamp.