It's known as "The Abilene Paradox." Observed and labeled by management guru Jerry Harvey, the phenomenon refers to a tendency by members of a group to accept an unwanted activity or condition simply to avoid any perceived conflict.
Harvey developed the theory after an impossibly banal experience. While visiting his wife's parents in West Texas, everyone assented to his father-in-law's dinner suggestion: a 53-mile trip to a little cafe on the outskirts of Abilene. The excursion was agreed to despite recognition that it was blisteringly hot, that a Panhandle dust storm had kicked up and that the family Buick's air-conditioning was not working.
Following four hours of misery (the meal was apparently drab as well), it turned out that no one had actually supported the idea. Even so, none of the four people involved had voiced disapproval. Even Harvey's father-in-law, who'd authored the idea, ventured: "I was just testing the waters. How'd I know you'd all take me seriously!"
It's a paradox that has implications for not just family gatherings but for both sports and business, writes Mark de Rond in There Is an I in Team, which seeks to impart lessons gleaned from his extensive investigation of sports teams combined with academic research on group and workplace behavior emerging from top universities, including Cambridge, where he holds the title "Reader."
Back to the Abilene Paradox. With 1 1 clays to go before its boat race with rival Oxford in 2007, de Rond writes, the Cambridge crew faced a conundrum: the team's sturdy coxswain, Russ Glenn, was popular and skilled. Yet his "aggressive" style of coxing was not producing the collective rhythm that would enable rowers to achieve victory. Team members were wary.
"Even though most of them had had strong reservations about Glenn," de Rond writes, "no one had spoken up for fear of being the odd one out."
But when members of the team did gather and commenced a discussion of Glenn's actions, each realized that his teammates harbored similar reservations. "As they took turns talking, they discovered that they shared concerns about Glenn's coxing; his steering had not been up to scratch, and his aggressive calls made them...