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A couple years ago I read Colin Powell’s It Worked For Me: In Life and Leadership. The book begins with elaboration on a baker’s dozen principles which formed the basis of an article he wrote for Parade magazine a number of years ago. From there he tells stories containing insights on life and leadership. It’s a very good book and I’ve now read it twice.

One of the stories he tells had to do with an expression called “the Bus to Abilene.” It’s about how groups can sometimes go down a wrong path when individuals in the group think everyone else wants to go that way and they fail to speak up because they don’t want to be out of step or the one to be a naysayer.

It’s an intriguing problem and I’ve recognized how this can sometimes happen. But how do you stop it? Colin Powell says that in the army it’s possible to simply stop and ask, “Are we on the bus to Abilene?” Everyone would know what this meant. Good leaders who sense this is happening will dare to take the same gamble and ask.

The book I am currently reading is called Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. It’s another really good book that I would recommend to everyone, introvert and extrovert alike, especially leaders. Interestingly the author Susan Cain while talking about group dynamics brings up the bus to Abilene story as well. So I thought I might be useful to share it here.

From Wikipedia: In an Abilene Paradox a group of people collectively decide on a course of action that is counter to the preferences of many (or all) of the individuals in the group. It involves a common breakdown of group communication in which each member mistakenly believes that their own preferences are counter to the group’s and, therefore, does not raise objections. A common phrase relating to the Abilene Paradox is a desire not to “rock the boat.” This differs from groupthink in that the Abilene Paradox is characterized by an inability to manage agreement.

The term was introduced by management expert Jerry B. Harvey in his 1974 article The Abilene Paradox: The Management of Agreement. The name of the phenomenon comes from an anecdote in the article which Harvey uses to elucidate the paradox:

On a hot afternoon visiting in Coleman, Texas, the family is comfortably playing dominoes on a porch, until the father-in-law suggests that they take a trip to Abilene [53 miles north] for dinner. The wife says, “Sounds like a great idea.” The husband, despite having reservations because the drive is long and hot, thinks that his preferences must be out-of-step with the group and says, “Sounds good to me. I just hope your mother wants to go.” The mother-in-law then says, “Of course I want to go. I haven’t been to Abilene in a long time.” The drive is hot, dusty, and long. When they arrive at the cafeteria, the food is as bad as the drive. They arrive back home four hours later, exhausted.

One of them dishonestly says, “It was a great trip, wasn’t it?” The mother-in-law says that, actually, she would rather have stayed home, but went along since the other three were so enthusiastic. The husband says, “I wasn’t delighted to be doing what we were doing. I only went to satisfy the rest of you.” The wife says, “I just went along to keep you happy. I would have had to be crazy to want to go out in the heat like that.” The father-in-law then says that he only suggested it because he thought the others might be bored staying home. The group sits back, perplexed that they together decided to take a trip which none of them wanted. They each would have preferred to sit comfortably, but did not admit to it when they still had time to enjoy the afternoon.

Colin Powell recommends that a good leader will be paying attention and — when he or she senses something is awry — stop the meeting to ask, “Are we on the bus to Abilene?” If we’re lucky, we’ll catch ourselves before the driver turns on the ignition key. Susan Cain amplifies the importance of making sure we listen to the quieter ones in our group who may have an insight but feel reluctant to push their viewpoint into a lively discussion between the extroverts in the room.

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Ed Newman is a writer, artist, harmonica player, and blog content creator.

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