Long, long ago in an office far, far away, I was Director of Corporate Management Training at The Travelers in Hartford. Within our curriculum was a highly effective and popular management-training program called The Abilene Paradox developed by management expert Jerry Harvey. It is designed to prepare people to be involved in a group-decision process, and the recent controversy over the Durham Fair Association’s decision to host Elephant Encounter at this year’s Fair called it to mind. The Abilene Paradox explains how and why a flawed decision might arise within any given group on any given occasion. This can occur, it proposes, when everyone assumes other members of the group are in agreement with a particular outcome, yet on an individual basis they do not agree with it.
The name comes from a true incident Harvey uses to illustrate the paradox. A family in rural Texas is sitting around a porch on a sweltering summer Sunday afternoon when someone, presumably to relieve boredom, suggests they take a trip to Abilene. After a few murmurs of assent (“Yeah, sure.” “OK” “Sounds alright to me.”), they set out on the 51-mile trip which, without air conditioning, is stifling and dusty and thoroughly unpleasant. Abilene on a Sunday afternoon proves to be pretty boring (Big surprise there.) and the food is lousy. The drive back is just as unpleasant and with “exhausted” added to the mix. Back home one of them comments that he wishes they hadn’t wasted the day on the trip. He says that he never really wanted to go in the first place but only went along to keep everyone else happy because he figured they all wanted to go. Surprisingly each of the others then voices a similar sentiment, that he or she just went along with the idea reluctantly to please everyone else. They then spent more quality time on the porch wondering how collectively they could decide to take a trip which none of them wanted.
The relevance in management training is obvious, warning budding leaders not to be cowed by apparent “groupthink,” especially when such “groupthink” might not be as solid and unanimous as it appears. So why might individuals not speak up to oppose or at least question? Fear of being proven wrong? Fear of being judged harshly or shunned by the group? Fear of offending one or more strong-willed “leaders” pushing hard for a particular outcome? Go along to get along? There can be many reasons, and anyone wishing to pursue this in detail can Google “The Abilene Paradox” and knock himself out.
Regarding this Elephant Encounter issue, I have to wonder if perhaps Durham, both its Fair Association and the Town itself, is about to hop into the old flivver for a trip to Abilene. For example do all fifty-seven Association members who voted to go on with the show, even in the face of some pretty compelling evidence of abuse and torture, of opposition from a significant number of people within the town, of possible lowered Fair attendance and volunteer participation, of possible protest activity, perhaps with media attention, still think bringing the elephants here is a pretty keen idea? Did some of them perhaps never think so even though they voted yes? Do some even now think the issue did not get as balanced an airing as should have? Might this why the Association has refused to honor the request for a headcount of the vote, not just because the Association is not a Town agency and hence not subject to Freedom Of Information as it says, but because some are not as content with their vote as they would like?
And in the Town itself? Although posted comments in the Patches and elsewhere are overwhelmingly in opposition to bringing the elephants here, threatening boycotts and the like, they are in the dozens, not even hundreds. Yes, 3,000 signed the petition, but apparently fewer than 2,000 were townsfolk, way under a third of the population. So do the people in Town in the aggregate, at least a majority, have a position? Things I am reading are along the lines of: “This is the Fair’s business, nothing to do with me, and they’ve looked into it. They must know what they are doing.” Or “ I guess elephants exploited for entertainment have it pretty rough, but the Fair does an awful lot of good for the Town, so who am I to object to its tactics?” So, what, it’s OK to abuse a few noble beasts as long as there’s something in it for me? Contrary to my long-past Jesuitical training, these ends do not justify the means. But that’s just me.
People in Durham, however, need to appreciate that declining to take a position is in itself taking a position, their own trips to Abilene as it were. Paraphrasing a famous quote, all that is required for atrocities to continue is for good people to stand by and say nothing. And, Association protestations to the contrary, the Durham Fair is the Town of Durham and its citizens. Few even in the Town, let alone in the region and elsewhere, recognize the distinction between them. If this year’s Fair and the Town become a focal point with media attention for protests against elephant exploitation and abuse, with a “town without pity” label, as could well happen, all of us in Town will feel the heat. Which side of the issue would you feel prouder to be on? Whatever your decision, be sure it’s your own.
Don Bourret, Durham