Agriculture is known to all of us but what’s about Agree – culture? You may be wondering what is this terminology? And, you may not be the only one. As you go through the article, this term will be demystified. Let us now move forward.

Now-a-days WhatsApp is very popular. Its popularity is so huge that it can make you awake at dead of night as also in early morning even before birds start chirping with a variety of messages, information, sermons, jokes, etc.

As a member of an elite WhatsApp Group(!), one day I got the following message:

“The Abilene Paradox:

On my birthday a couple of years back, I (who is this ‘I’, I do not know) wanted to take my family out for dinner. I asked my wife where we can go. Knowing that I like Gujarati food, she immediately said: “Let’s go to Agashiye – The Terrace Restaurant.”

My son and daughter both nodded in agreement. On return my son said: “I wish Papa had taken us to Mainland China – he loves Chinese food.” “Or at least to Shere-E-Punjab for the wonderful tandoori chicken” added my daughter. “Yes, I too would have loved to go Mainland China”, I said.

My wife looked surprised: “But didn’t we all unanimously agree to go to Agashiye” she asked.

I said sheepishly “I didn’t want you to feel bad.” And both my children nodded in agreement. Here were four people who of their own volition would not have gone to ‘Agashiye – The Terrace Restaurant, but collectively agreed to go there.

This also happens in the corporate world. This is the Abilene Paradox. Prof. Jerry Harvey calls it “The Inability to Manage Agreement”.

Abilene Paradox occurs when a group of people collectively decide on a course of action that is contrary to the preferences of many of the individuals in the group.

Prof. Harvey states in his paper ‘The Abilene Paradox’: “Organizations frequently take actions in contradiction to what they really want to do and therefore defeat the very purpose they are trying to achieve”. This is the inability to manage agreement.

He adds: “The inability to manage agreement, not the inability to manage conflict, is the essential symptom that defines organizations caught in the web of the Abilene Paradox.”

In the corporate world, when the top boss throws an idea, the group immediately agrees. This is because everyone in the group thinks he would look stupid if he disagrees.  Standing out as a lone voice is very embarrassing. This leads the group to decide on ‘yes’ when ‘no’ would have been the personal (and the correct) response of the majority.

I love this from Ayn Rand: “If we have an endless number of individual minds who are weak, meek, submissive and impotent – who renounce their creative supremacy for the sake of the “whole” and accept humbly the ‘whole’s verdict’ – we don’t get a collective super-brain. We get only the weak, meek, submissive and impotent collective mind.

agree - culture

The `Abilene Paradox’ plagues many industries / organisations in India too, some more severely than others. In India, the nomenclature which is more apt than any other terms is “Agree-culture”.

A very articulate and strong leader with excellence in communication skills may cause this to happen.  Because the speaker is so convincing and his / her personality driving, voices of dissent are silenced. He / She may present his / her case so forcefully, that rather than be conspicuously different or cause difficulties; people decide to just go along with it.  They are avoiding the anxiety of voicing a different viewpoint. This can lead to dangerous situations. Managers will continue to say `Yes’ when they actually want to say `No’ for the fear of being isolated, ridiculed or labelled as a rebel.

This culture is more prevalent in Public Sector than in Private Sector because of difference in accountability as well as risk profile. It is a human weakness that nobody likes to hear “NO” when one proposes something to do /execute. This is more pronounced in case of persons with authority like President, Chairman, etc. They simply wish to hear only “Yes, Sir / Madam”. Even if some employees in the organisation dare to say ‘No’, they will be black listed and taken to task. Resultantly, employees either fall in line or prefer to remain silent.

However, what really disturbing is that in the process, some of the employees become sycophants and they make an Unholy Group with the sole purpose of remaining close to the power centre. Their main motto is to grab only the benefits without caring at all for the organisation. To cite an example, we can consider one such prominent benefit – Promotion, most sought after benefit in Public Sector. To accommodate those close circuit employees, the Head of the organisation keeps on changing the Promotion Policy, putting the interest of the organisation, real performers / workers / well-wishers of the organisation at the back burner. In the process, while incompetent persons go up in the ladder, deserving ones become disgruntled employees. Thus, the organisation suffers silently when the Promoting Authority and the promoted employees feel extremely happy. This resembles the following real life (as seen by me many a times) scenario:

A person boarded the train without ticket with the tacit approval of the TTE. While the fare happened to be Rs. 100/-, he paid Rs.50/- to the TTE. Both the traveller and the TTE were happy but the Railways suffered silently.

Way Forward: This paradox / culture can, however, be pre-empted by true and authentic leadership. It requires a leader with a different calibre and courage to lead such a Group into a different direction, where non-conformity is not acceptable. Such a leader will confront the Group and even the person who throws the original idea, with what they have already agreed upon. This true leader will make people forget the previously agreed upon facts.  Bringing these up causes people to reconsider, and could render the change in direction needed for a turnaround.

No leader worth his / her salt wants his / her organization going the Abilene Paradox way. In other words, leader, in true sense of the term, must not wish his / her organisation to follow ‘Agree – culture’ and hurt the organisation. We only hope that good sense should prevail among the top bosses of the organisations helping them to grow and prosper. This, in turn, will help the country to prosper.

Pulak Kumar Sinha

Pulak Kumar Sinha

I am a retd. General Manager at State Bank of India. I am a Certified Associate of Indian Institute of Bankers and have a P.G. Diploma in Management from All India Management Association (AIMA).
I joined SBI as a Probationary Officer in 1981. Since then, I have worked in various capacities as Branch Manager, Regional Manager and Deputy General Manager at different places. My specialised areas are Credit and General Banking.
I also was Chairperson of Reserve Bank of India Working Group on Evaluation of Feasibility of Aadhaar based Biometric Authentication as Additional factor of Authentication for card present transactions and related issues.
Pulak Kumar Sinha

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