My Leadership Fails: Team Failure & The Abilene Paradox

TSS Toxic Workplace

“When performance drives relationships business success is inevitable. However, when relationships drive performance, the urge to maintain the status quo will lead to  failure”

“More teams (and businesses) are ultimately destroyed by unhealthy people-pleasing than by overt hostility and aggression”

A boardroom drama I will never forget: “What do you mean ‘we may be insolvent’? How much cash do we need? Why did we all agree to pay a dividend at the last board meeting if cashflow is so poor?” This team of directors was in trouble! Yet they were all highly competent, capable and overtly supportive of each other.

How did they get into such a mess? The answer lies in an insidious strain of conflict avoidance known as ‘people-pleasing’. This form of conflict avoidance has contributed to a range of major disasters including financial catastrophes, major industrial accidents, plane crashes, shipping disasters and company destroying product failures.

To be a high performance team that maximises results and minimizes risks, effective, honest and real-time communication is essential. But our primordial urge to avoid conflict (see previous post) not only creates the tendency for gossip and backstabbing, but also for excessive politeness and hyper-vigilance towards people-pleasing and peace-keeping.

The Dangers of ‘People-Pleasing’: The Abilene Paradox

This excessive politeness and peace-keeping leads us to feign agreement with others or severely compromise our own needs, thus creating unnecessary team dysfunction and distress. In fact, this excessive politeness and unhealthy people-pleasing destroys a lot more teams (and businesses) then overt hostility and aggression.

The tendency to please others, often at our own expense, plays out in personal relationships where we offer to do an activity with our partner that we do not want to do, but think they do. Recently, despite my own tiredness and desire to have an early night, I offered to take my wife out for dinner. My wife then felt obliged to agree to it in order to avoid appearing ungrateful, despite her own tiredness that evening and her need to finish some work. Subsequently, we went out for dinner only to both feel tired and frustrated when we eventually realised that neither of us really wanted to go out in the first place!

This cycle of suggesting and agreeing to things you do not like or want to do, (but which you believe someone else likes or wants to do) is known as the Abilene Paradox. The term was introduced by management expert Jerry B. Harvey in his 1974 article The Abilene Paradox: The Management of Agreement, where he described a trip he took with his family from his home to Abilene, Texas. Jerry initiated the trip one hot sunny afternoon, despite his own desire to remain at home in the cool and relax. As you may guess, the proposed trip was endorsed by all family members, despite their own unspoken reluctance to go to Abilene. The trip ended with all family members resenting the hot afternoon car trip that they all would have much rather avoided.

‘People-Pleasing’ Disasters at Work

Whilst we often associate team breakdown with overt hostility and conflict, it is far more common for teams to fail due to a culture of excessive people-pleasing and peace-keeping at the expense of business goals. Take a look at these 3 classic failures below:

1. Delegating Disasters: Confusing Fairness With Capability

Scene 1: At a meeting, I asked someone to do something important on a project (who I tended to avoid as they were notoriously unreliable) in order to show fairness to all team members. They reluctantly agree, but then don’t complete the task resulting in both I and them (and the wider team) being frustrated and the broader project being adversely affected by the delay.

2. Acting Up: Confusing Obligation and Desire

Scene 2: My Manager takes 3 months leave and I am one of 3 Supervisors in her group. My Manager, whom is much more friendly to the other two Supervisors gives me the opportunity to act in the Manager role first so as to avoid the risk of bias. I don’t want the role but feel obliged to say ‘yes’ or risk negative consequences. I take the job reluctantly and resent the additional demands while my motivated colleagues miss out and workplace morale declines.

3. Social Drinks: Confusing Politeness With Genuine Interest

Scene 3: My staff plan Friday night drinks and invite me out of courtesy. They are much younger than me and have different interests, but I feel obliged to go to show my commitment to the team. I turn up reluctantly, wishing I was at home. The team placates me with small talk while avoiding their own preferred topics. I escape early feeling frustrated that I even went while the team finally get to leave the venue they didn’t prefer (but had booked because it was closer to where I lived) and go to a club in the city to party the night away.

The Heart of the Matter: Does Performance Drive Relationships or Vice Versa?

In these examples of the Abilene Paradox of dysfunctional people pleasing my focus in maintaining harmonious relationships at the expense of both good business decisions and my own work/life balance seem obvious in hindsight. In each case subjugating my own needs in an attempt to ‘fit in’ didn’t improve workplace morale or performance nor my own personal happiness. Instead of creating a ‘win-win’ situation it was a ‘lose-lose’ for myself and the team. To turn this around I needed to stop being relationship focused at the expense of business performance but instead make business performance the content and focus of building effective relationships with team members.

Performance Driving Relationships – A True ‘Win-Win’

When I finally stopped my excessive people-pleasing I could start focusing my conversations on business objectives and build team engagement and relationships around the achievement of work focused goals and objectives. This was a much simpler and easier dynamic for the team as we were less preoccupied with people-pleasing and more satisfied with achieving business objectives and celebrating results. This placed less pressure on each of us to ‘fit in’ to team social activities and instead let social groups form naturally as a value add for those inclined, without placing any additional obligations on others.

Prevention is Better than Cure: Workplace Culture – Keep it Real-Time & Results Focused

To prevent the Abilene Paradox of excessive people-pleasing and peace-keeping from destroying team performance, you need to have a results focused culture where scorecards and dashboards regularly highlight real-time results for the team to see and discuss. By devoting your relationship energy towards problem solving and supporting staff achieve business objectives you will avoid the trap of becoming pre-occupied with personalities, and pecking orders so common in cultures that fall into the trap of the Abilene Paradox.

Ride The Waves of Life!

Dr Pete

The Stress Surfer

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