Groupthink and the Abilene Paradox

Asking for a variety of individual opinions in brainstorming sessions doesn’t always work as planned.

When faced with a difficult task, we often seek the ideas and insights of a number of individuals. Attacking a problem with a group rather than an individual should provide additional perspectives and an opportunity to piggy-back on each other’s ideas.

In fact, the pressure of a group setting in the workplace can actually lead to individuals withholding their views because they feel their ideas run counter to those of the group. Because of this mistaken assumption, team members will agree to an idea they are not in favour of. This practice of refusing to object to an unfavourable idea is commonly referred to as the “Abilene paradox,” or “groupthink.”

Such situations commonly occur in the workplace because of the many consequences that may be associated with breaking ranks – possible loss of promotions, embarrassment in front of a superior, or simply earning the reputation of not being “a team player.” As a result, employees are more willing to conform to an idea they find distasteful than to assert their opinion and risk being criticized. And while this is a complex social problem, it can be handled through effective communication.

Though difficult, you can reap the advantages of group decision-making or brainstorming sessions while actively discouraging groupthink. One effective strategy for avoiding the Abilene paradox is using anonymous idea submission. Instead of having team members shout out ideas, begin a brainstorming session by introducing the problem or concept at hand and then distributing post-it notes for writing down ideas. After a pre-determined period of time, collect the post-its and put them on a wall, so that ideas remain anonymous but are still presented. This will encourage members to think outside the box without fear of personal criticism. At this stage, you may either openly discuss the ideas or initiate a second round of written responses. Either way, you will be able to minimize the pressures of publicity yet still take advantage of a variety of viewpoints and the opportunity to build off one another’s ideas.

Another method to avoid the Abilene paradox also involves maintaining anonymity; instead of during the idea-generation process, though, implement it during the voting or decision-making stage. It is during the actual decision-making process that the pressure to conform becomes the most overwhelming, so letting employees approve or disapprove of an initiative with a high level of privacy will encourage them to voice their true opinions.

Building awareness of the issue can also eliminate conformist thinking. Let your employees know that this phenomenon is real and carries with it worse consequences than anything that would result from a simple difference of opinion. Be sure to stress the fact that your company values diverse input, as innovation usually comes from breaking the mould. But also realise that your actions speak louder than words; rewarding employees who speak up in a constructive manner and voicing your appreciation for creative ideas will let employees know that “rocking the boat” isn’t going to push the company – or their career – off course. In fact, going with the flow can produce a much less favourable outcome.

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