The Bus to Abilene

I’m currently reading Susan Cain’s book on introversion, Quiet. Here, Cain quotes Colonel (Ret.) Stephen J. Gerras, a professor of behavioral science at the U.S. Army War College:

…a family sitting on a porch in Texas on a hot summer day, and somebody says, ‘I’m bored. Why don’t we go to Abilene?’ When they get to Abilene, somebody says, ‘You know, I didn’t really want to go.’ And the next person says, ‘I didn’t want to go–I thought you wanted to go,’ and so on. Whenever you’re in an army group and somebody says, ‘I think we’re getting on the bus to Abilene here,’ that is a red flag. You can stop a conversation with it. It is a very powerful artifact of our [the army’s] culture.

Anybody who has worked in a bureaucratic culture knows this well. The leader says ‘let’s do this’. Often whatever this is doesn’t make a lot of sense, but the leader doesn’t bother to entertain objections. And, it’s in nobody’s self-interest to object and explain why it doesn’t make sense. It’s less risky to just do it than rock the boat.

I’ve found that even when bureaucratic leaders say they want people to push back, they really don’t. Bureaucrats learn that fast. It’s better to be employed and in good-standing than to be right.

I was intrigued to find out that a hierarchical and bureaucratic organization like the army has a device to counter this dynamic. But, then again, they have a stronger motivation for it. It’s not just their position that could be stake, their lives could be at stake as well.