Why Compromising Isn’t Always Good For You or Your Team’s Performance or Productivity. The Paradox of Compromise aka The Abilene Paradox

In a recent interview Jeff Bezos was talking about building a successful company culture and offered this simple hypothetical example of compromise.

“How tall do you think this ceiling is? 

I say 10 feet.” 

“You say 11 feet.”

“Let’s compromise and call it 10.5 feet.” 

Then he says, “Does this approach produce an accurate result?” 

Obviously, no. It does not. 

A tape measure would produce the right result.  Not compromise. 

It’s easy to emphasize the value of compromise. It feels like you’re being a team player. But the paradox of compromise is that many times, it produces a result that is inaccurate or, worse, wrong.

Used inappropriately among your team, compromise will consistently produce mediocre results and ultimately lead to frustration and when that happens you and your team’s productivity and performance suffers. 

This phenomenon is not new and was named  “The Abilene Paradox by management expert Jerry B. Harvey in his 1974 article  “The Abilene Paradox: The Management of Agreement”

The name comes from the anecdote that Harvey uses in the article to illustrate the paradox that goes like this…

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 [50-mile (80-km)] trip to Abilene 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 that 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.

There’s a time for compromise and there’s time to use first world principle thought processes to get the right answer. Not because anyone is being disagreeable, but because some decisions are too serious to simply compromise. 

Assess situations when you’re in group or team situation. When a decision can be reversed rather easy comprise can work, but if you have a decision where it’s going to be very hard to reverse course and correct a mistake, don’t compromise, measure and get it right.

Your Move.

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