Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Breaking Free From Group Think

Presented by:
Elizabeth Castillo, MA, Director of Development, Balboa Park Cultural Partnership
Laura Deitrick, Ph.D., Director, Caster Family Center for Nonprofit and Philanthropic research

Remember that time that you "knew better," but you didn’t DO anything about it?

Maybe you had the excuse that sounded something like this: “I can’t do that because…” If so, you may have experienced what is deemed “The Abilene Paradox.” Basically, within this paradox, you give an excuse for continuing inaction, rather than taking action. Your inaction is simply an attempt at avoiding risk. Yet, if real risk is a condition of human existence, is there any possibility of progress with your inaction?

Elizabeth and Laura shared with us a video called “The Abilene Paradox.” It presented situations including:

  • A family decision to drive to a dinner 50 miles away in Texas in 110 degree heat and humidity with no air conditioning in the car. No one wanted to say that he or she preferred to stay home.
  • A business that continued to fund a project into the third year even though it continued to show a lack of success. Everyone was scared to speak up against it for fear of getting fired or upsetting the Board.
  • A man and woman who were getting married but didn’t actually love each other. Neither wanted to upset the girl’s mother who had a bad heart.

In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll be the first (or second) to admit that I’ve spent a good chunk of my life doing things to keep other people from getting upset or becoming unhappy. But, hey, I'm workin' on it.

As the video pointed out, what is it that we fear? It seems we fear "being ostracized, being branded a non-team player, and ultimately, being separated." Have you ever heard of the idea of the self-fulfilling prophecy? By not sharing your true opinion, you guarantee whatever you fear the most. The more willing we are NOT to take the risk of being separated, the more likely we are to be separated further down the line.

So, how do you know if you are experiencing the Abilene Paradox?

Well, do you feel hesitant during a discussion? Are your thoughts about the topic negative? Are you imagining the project or idea failing? Then, my friend, I believe you are experiencing what is called a difference of opinion. Say something because maybe you've got a point.

You don’t have to step up completely against the direction of the conversation around the idea or project, but you can do something to help redirect it. Ask questions to encourage individuals to think more deeply about what they are saying.

Often, once somebody speaks out about something, others might feel more comfortable doing so.

This reminds me of my algebra II class in high school. We all had that teacher (mine was Mr. Fugiano) who said in that all-knowing voice, “Ask questions because I guarantee if you don’t understand something, there are ten others in the room who also don’t understand it.” Ah, how wise he was.

Be the leader. Stand up for what you know (or believe) to be right. Don’t worry it if upsets other people because you’re helping yourself. If you go along with the idea or project and it fails, you can’t say that from the start you knew it wouldn’t work.

Do you know why you can’t say this? You’ll just get this response: Well, then why didn’t you say something?

It’s entirely possible that you will then become the scapegoat because you were the one who “knew” when no one else did. It’s your fault because you didn’t DO anything about it.

I’m going to work on doing this both personally and professionally. Are you?

Posted by Jessica Rodgers, Board Member of YNPN San Diego and food blogger for FoodandUs.

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