The Soviet Union collapsed on December 26, 1991. While signs of decay had been growing, the final collapse happened with unexpected speed. The union disappeared almost overnight and surprisingly few Soviet citizens bothered to defend it. Though it had seemed stable – and persistent – even a few months earlier, it evaporated with barely a whimper.
We could (and probably will) debate for years why the USSR disappeared, I suspect that two cognitive biases — false consensus and preference falsification — were significant contributors. Simply put, many people lied. They said that they supported the regime when, in fact, they did not. When they looked to others for their opinions, those people also lied about their preferences. It seemed that people widely supported the government. They said so, didn’t they? Since a majority seemed to agree, it was reasonable to assume that the government would endure. Best to go with the flow. But when cracks in the edifice appeared, they quickly brought down the entire structure.
Why would people lie about their preferences? Partially because they believed that a consensus existed in the broader community. In such situations, one might lie because of:
False consensus and preference falsification can lead to illogical outcomes such as the Abilene paradox. Nobody wanted to go to Abilene but each person thought that everybody else wanted to go to Abilene … so they all went. A false consensus existed and everybody played along.
We can also see this happening with the risky shift. Groups tend to make riskier decisions than individuals. Why? Oftentimes, it’s because of a false consensus. Each member of the group assumes that other members of the group favor the riskier strategy. Nobody wants to be seen as a wimp, so each member agrees. The decision is settled – everybody wants to do it. This is especially problematic in cultures that emphasize teamwork.
Reinhold Niebuhr may have originated this stream of thought in his book Moral Man and Immoral Society, originally published in 1932. Niebuhr argued that individual morality and social morality were incompatible. We make individual decisions based on our moral understanding. We make collective decisions based on our understanding of what society wants, needs, and demands. More succinctly, “Reason is not the sole basis of moral virtue in men. His social impulses are more deeply rooted than his rational life.”
In 1997, the economist, Timur Kuran, updated this thinking with his book, Private Truths, Public Lies. While Niebuhr focused on the origins of such behavior, Kuran focused more attention on the outcomes. He notes that preference falsification helps preserve “widely disliked structures” and provides an “aura of stability on structures vulnerable to sudden collapse.” Further, “When the support of a policy, tradition, or regime is largely contrived, a minor event may activate a bandwagon that generates massive yet unanticipated change.”
How can we mitigate the effects of such falsification? Like other cognitive biases, I doubt that we can eliminate the bias itself. As Lady Gaga sings, we were born this way. The best we can do is to be aware of the bias and question our decisions, especially when our individual (private) preferences differ from the (perceived) preferences of the group. When someone says, “Let’s go to Abilene” we can ask, “Really? Does anybody really want to go to Abilene?” We might be surprised at the answer.
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.