Editorial: Agreement can have its problems

Published 9:20 am Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Have you ever heard of the Abilene Paradox? It’s a lesson in the management of agreement.

The Abilene Paradox is when people make collective decisions for the sake of being agreeable but end up acting against their own interests.

There are dangers in too much agreement. People become agreeable just for the sake of showing they like each other and want to avoid hurting feelings. That’s well and good, but when it comes to local civics, what makes it strong — what makes it successful — is when there is disagreement and eventually sound compromises are reached.

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Are we too agreeable in Albert Lea? Is social conformity at play? Do we need to have a greater tolerance for disagreement — a thicker skin?

And do enough people simply recognize that we don’t have to take local politics personally? Just because someone disagrees with you does not mean they don’t like you. Disagreement in civics — especially at the city, county and school levels — should not be taken as a personal affront. It’s just part of having a healthy board, council, commission, committee or any sort of panel.

It’s democracy in action.

Here is the story of how one night a group of family members ended up going to Abilene even though none of them wanted to go. The story is told by management expert James B. Harvey for his 1974 article “The Abilene Paradox: The Management of Agreement.”

On a hot afternoon visiting in Coleman, Texas, the family is comfortably playing dominoes on a porch, until the father-in-law suggests that they take a trip to Abilene [53 miles north] for dinner. The wife says, “Sounds like a great idea.” The husband, despite having reservations because the drive is long and hot, thinks that his preferences must be out-of-step with the group and says, “Sounds good to me. I just hope your mother wants to go.” The mother-in-law then says, “Of course I want to go. I haven’t been to Abilene in a long time.”

The drive is hot, dusty and long. When they arrive at the cafeteria, the food is as bad as the drive. They arrive back home four hours later, exhausted.

One of them dishonestly says, “It was a great trip, wasn’t it?” The mother-in-law says that, actually, she would rather have stayed home, but went along since the other three were so enthusiastic. The husband says, “I wasn’t delighted to be doing what we were doing. I only went to satisfy the rest of you.” The wife says, “I just went along to keep you happy. I would have had to be crazy to want to go out in the heat like that.” The father-in-law then says that he only suggested it because he thought the others might be bored.

The group sits back, perplexed that they together decided to take a trip which none of them wanted. They each would have preferred to sit comfortably, but did not admit to it when they still had time to enjoy the afternoon.

Whether in the public discourse or even in our private companies, be sure to thank someone this week for disagreeing with you. Thank them for raising a counterpoint, for thinking in a contrary manner, even if they didn’t get their way this time. The input was valuable, and at times, that kind of thinking helps people avoid making mistakes or acting foolishly.