Leaders often find themselves managing conflict. And focus their efforts on resolving conflicts and helping teams work towards common goal. Can we consider agreement – the opposite of conflict – a boon? Is it good for teams? Will an agreement bring a team closer to success?
Not necessarily; inability to manage agreement can also be a major source of dysfunction. Consider a situation where President of a large business unit is excited about a specific approach for ‘inventory management’. She is convinced that it will help the organization significantly reduce cost and increase overall margin. Her leadership team doubts the approach. Each member secretly believes that the approach would not work. Some see the writing on the wall. However, no one dissents. The project is initiated with lot of apparent enthusiasm from all. It’s no wonder that it dies its natural death in due course.
This phenomenon is well captured by Prof Jerry Harvey in Abilene’s Paradox. Imagine a hot, humid Sunday afternoon in the small town of Coleman, Texas. The temperature is 104 degrees. A mother, father, their married daughter and son-in-law are sitting on the outdoor porch playing dominoes.
The father suggests, “Why don’t we all drive to Abilene and have dinner in the cafeteria there?” The son-in-law thinks to himself, “Abilene? That’s 53 miles away. Drive in this dust and heat and the car air conditioner isn’t working well.”
But his wife, the daughter, chimes in, “That sounds like a great idea. How about you, dear?” she asks her husband. Since his preference seems obviously out of step with the others, he slowly responds, “Sounds OK to me, but does your mother want to go?” He hopes she will say no. The mother-in-law replies, “Why not, I haven’t been to Abilene for some time.”
So they all get into the old Buick and go to Abilene. It is brutally hot, the wind is blowing stifling hot air full of dust and the air conditioning is faulty. They arrive in Abilene after couple of hours of uncomfortable ride.
The cafeteria food is filling but nothing great. Three hours and 106 hot miles later, the family is back in Coleman, sweating and exhausted.
The son-in-law says, sarcastically, “Great trip, wasn’t it?” His mother-in-law replies, “To tell you the truth, I really didn’t enjoy it that much and would have liked to stay home. I just went along because the three of you were so enthusiastic about going. You all pressured me into it.”
The son-in-law couldn’t believe what he heard. “What do you mean, ‘you all?’ I didn’t want to go; I only went to satisfy the rest of you.”
His wife looked shocked. “Hey, I just went along to keep the rest of you happy. You three were the ones who wanted to go.”
Then the father said. “Well, I never really wanted to go to Abilene. I just thought you all might want to go; that you were bored playing dominoes here. I would have preferred to stay home and eat the leftovers.”
Here lies the challenge of Agreement. No one wanted to go to Abilene, but everyone agreed to go.
So, what’s the learning for a leader?
Mine for disagreement! Don’t take agreement on its face value. Acknowledge that most people find it difficult to express dissent, especially if majority in the team seemingly agree to something. People don’t want to stand out; and get alienated from others in the team. Remember, one needs courage to stand out and express disagreement.
It becomes even more important if a leader comes with lot of experience and expertise. And is far more senior than others in the team.
I recollect an incident which happened few weeks back. I was organizing an official event at global level. We had a team working on entertainment for the evening. The team was falling short of ideas. I suggested a particular activity, without giving much thought to it. Almost immediately, everyone in the room agreed. Some commented that it’s a great idea. I was happy; it’s a natural reaction when you get a unanimous approval. But a small voice from inside cautioned me. “Are you sure your idea is so good and the team really likes it? Or are they just getting along?” One sole soul had the courage to say in a diplomatic way, “Since you suggested, the activity must be good.” And that hit the point clearly. There was no room for ambiguity; it was clear that the agreement was only at surface level.
As leaders, it’s important not to get swayed by agreement. But, to actively look for signs of disagreement, however miniscule. It could save the team a trip to Abilene!