I used to think it was difficult to manage conflict. Now I wonder if it isn’t more difficult to manage agreement.
A conflicted organization is fairly easy to analyze. The signs are abundant. You can quickly identify the conflicting groups as well as the members of each. You can identify grievances simply by talking with people. You can figure out who is “us” and who is “them”. Solving the problem may prove challenging but, at the very least, you know two things: 1) there is a problem; 2) its general contours are easy to see.
When an organization is in agreement, on the other hand, you may not even know that a problem exists. Everything floats along smoothly. People may not quiver with enthusiasm but no one is throwing furniture or shouting obscenities. Employees work and things get done.
The problem with an organization in agreement is that many participants actually disagree. But the disagreement doesn’t bubble up and out. There are at least two scenarios in which this happens:
Similar paradoxes arise in organizations all the time. Each employee wants to be seen as a team player. They may have reservations about a decision but — because everyone else agrees or seems to agree — they keep quiet. Perhaps nobody agrees to a given project but they believe that everyone else does. Perhaps nobody wants to work on Project X. Nevertheless, Project X persists. Unlike a conflicted organization, nobody realizes that a problem exists.
The second scenario is perhaps more dangerous but less common. A fear-based culture – if left untreated – will eventually corrupt the entire organization. Employees grow afraid of telling the truth. The remedy is easy to discern but hard to execute: the organization needs to replace executive management and create a new culture.
The Abilene paradox is perhaps less dangerous but far more common. Any organization that strives to “play as a team” or “hire team players” is at risk. Employees learn to go along with the team, even if they believe the team is wrong.
What can be done to overcome the Abilene paradox in an organization? Rosabeth Moss Kanter points out that there are two parts to the problem. First, employees make inaccurate assumptions about what others believe. Second, even though they disagree, they don’t feel comfortable speaking up. A good manager can work on both sides of the problem. Kanter suggests the following:
The activities needed to ward off the Abilene paradox are not draconian. Indeed, they’re fairly easy to implement. But you can only implement them if you realize that a problem exists. That’s the hard part.
If you’re shot down behind enemy lines, would you rather be alone or in a group of colleagues? According to research from the U.S. Air Force, your chances of survival are better if you’re alone. That may seem counter-intuitive but groups — especially temporary groups with fluid leadership — often shift toward riskier behavior. Individuals tend to make fact-based decisions that often result in better outcomes.
In other words, an individual makes more conservative decisions. Operating alone, he or she focuses on and assesses the situation. In a group, members assess each other as well and may make decisions based on group dynamics rather than facts and evidence. This is what Robert Cialdini calls “social cues” — we look to each other for cues on how we should behave rather than making a hardheaded assessment of the situation.
To effectively lead groups, you need to understand how group dynamics and social cues can change your behavior. You may “go with the group” even if you feel uncomfortable with their decision. Watch the video — you might be surprised at what you would do if you find a man lying unconscious on the streets of Manhattan.