Why Teams Are Not Teams

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Teams are not teams when there is no shared fate.  Teams are not teams when self-preservation is the priority.  Teams are not teams when they are a mash-up of people lobbying to get a promotion.

Read the following Play By Jerry Lewis Entitled – The Road To Abilene –

Jerry Harvey, the Narrator: The July afternoon in Coleman, Texas was particularly hot -104 degrees as measured by the big thermometer outside the Walgreen – Rexall. In addition, the wind was blowing fine-grained West Texas topsoil through the house. But the afternoon was still tolerable—even potentially enjoyable. There was a fan going on the back porch; there was cold lemonade; and finally, there was entertainment. Dominoes. Perfect for the conditions. The game required little more physical exertion than an occasional mumbled comment, “Shuffle ‘em,” and an unhurried movement of the arm to place the spots in the appropriate perspective on the table. All in all, it had the makings of an agreeable Sunday afternoon in Coleman—this is, it was until my father-in-law makes a suggestion,

Father-in-law: “Let’s get in the car and go to Abilene and have dinner at that cafeteria on Houston Street. It’s only 53 miles north of here.”

Jerry the Narrator: I thought, “What, go to Abilene? Fifty-three miles? In this dust storm and heat? And in an unairconditioned 1958 Buick? Why would we want to leave this porch and do that?” Then, my wife chimed in:

Jerry’s Wife: “Sounds like a great idea. I’d like to go. How about you, Jerry?”

Jerry the Narrator: Since my own preferences were obviously out of step with the rest I replied, “Sounds good to me; I just hope your mother wants to go.”

Mother-in-law: “Of course I want to go. I haven’t been to Abilene in a long time.”

Jerry the Narrator: So into the car and off to Abilene we went. My predictions were fulfilled. The heat was brutal. We were coated with a fine layer of dust that was cemented with perspiration by the time we arrived. The food at the cafeteria provided first-rate testimonial material for antacid commercials.

Jerry the Narrator: Some four hours and 106 miles later we returned to Coleman, hot and exhausted. We sat in front of the fan for a long time in silence. Then, both to be sociable and to break the silence, I said, “It was a great trip, wasn’t it?” No one spoke. Finally my mother-in-law said, with some irritation,

Mother-in-law: “Well, to tell the truth, I really didn’t enjoy it much and would rather have stayed here. I just went along because the three of you were so enthusiastic about going. I wouldn’t have gone if you all hadn’t pressured me into it.”

Jerry the Narrator: I couldn’t believe it. “What do you mean ‘you all’? Don’t put me in the ‘you all’ group. I was delighted to be doing what we were doing. I didn’t want to go. I only went to satisfy the rest of you; you’re the culprits!”

Jerry the Narrator: My wife looked shocked.

Jerry’s wife: “Don’t call me a culprit. You and Daddy and Mama were the ones who wanted to go. I just went along to be sociable and to keep you happy. I would have had to be crazy to want to go out in heat like that.”

Jerry the Narrator: My father-in-law entered the conversation with an abrupt

Father-in-law: “I never wanted to go to Abilene. I just thought you might be bored. You visit so seldom I wanted to be sure you enjoyed it. I would have preferred to play another game of dominoes and eat the leftovers in the icebox.”

Jerry the Narrator: After the outburst of recrimination we all sat back in silence. Here we were, four reasonably sensible people who, of our own volition, had just taken a 106-mile trip across a godforsaken desert in a furnace-like heat through a cloud-like dust storm to eat unpalatable food at a hole-in-the-wall cafeteria in Abilene, when none of us had really wanted to go. In fact, to be more accurate, we’d done just the opposite of what we wanted to do. The whole situation simply didn’t make sense. At least it didn’t make sense at the time.

Jerry the Narrator: Since that day in Coleman, I have observed, consulted with, and been a part of more than one organization that has been caught in the same situation. As a result, they have either taken a side-trip, or, occasionally, a terminal journey to Abilene, when Dallas or Houston or Tokyo was where they really wanted to go. And for most of those organizations, the negative consequences of such trips, measured in terms of both human misery and economic loss, have been much greater than for our little Abilene group.

 There are five underlying psychological factors related to what is called “The Abilene Paradox” a book written by Jerry Harvey

1.) Real Risk: Highly diligent organizations, which can often be determined through the use of an assessment such as Hogan, may choose to avoid risk and uncertainty.  Teams may inadvertently head to Abilene because it is safer and thus end up making the poor choice.

2.) Action Anxiety: Teams and people do not like to feel emotionally uncomfortable.  Emotional lack of comfort can actually be a positive for teams.  Often the more anxiety producing choice, creates the greatest impact and opportunity. Just look at the Father-In-Law, he never wanted to go to Abilene in the first place and stating this could create anxiety or even the opportunity to be rejected by others.

3.) Negative Fantasies:  Some teams are addicted to negativity and comfort, which works against them.  Teams will worry that positive decisions will lead to a negative output.  It is the working of the team’s shared amygdala of the brain that is all about emotion.

4.) Seperation Anxiety:  Individuals often make decisions on teams that reinforce our connection to the team.  We are people of the pack, no different than a pack of wolves in the wild.  Being separated from the pack creates tremendous anxiety.  So, just like the family headed to Abilene, no-one wanted to risk being left out and so they go along.  Speaking up in a meeting may be too risky, it could mean you will be removed from the pack.

5.) Psychological Risk of Uncertainty:  Americans are addicted to certainty.  Human beings are addicted to certainty.  Corporate America is addicted to certainty.  Data drives our hunger for certainty.  Yet, the subjective is an important measure for decision making.   Your team has a larger threshold for uncertainty than you may realize.  Team members often do not want to risk the uncertain for the certain.

What can you do about this when on a team? Here are three suggestions:

1.) Read the Parable:  Print this blog post off and act it out like a play in your next meeting.

2.) Call It Out:  Are we headed to Abilene?

3.) Team Charter:  Develop your team charter that outlines: Shared Purpose, Shared Values and Team Norms.  Meeting norms ought to include elements such as confidentiality, make thinking visible and criticize ideas not people.