A Guide to Dysfunctional Management and the Evil Workplace
April 3rd, 2014 by William

The Abilene Paradox

Have you ever been in a meeting where everyone collectively decided on a course of action and after the action failed, weeks even months later, you find out that the decision was counter to the preferences of many of the individuals in the group? It’s a problem more common than you might think. This problem is due to a breakdown of communication in which each member mistakenly believes that their own preferences are counter to the group’s preferences and therefore, does not raise objections to the decision being made. I’m sure you’ve all thought this way at one time or the other−you tell yourself to “go with the flow” or “don’t rock the boat.”

This phenomenon is called “The Abilene Paradox.” The term was introduced by management expert Jerry Harvey in his 1974 article “The Abilene Paradox: The Management of Agreement.” The name of the phenomenon comes from an anecdote in the article which Harvey uses to describe the paradox:

“On a hot afternoon in Coleman, Texas, a family is comfortably playing dominoes on a porch, until the father-in-law suggests that they take a trip to Abilene (53 miles north) 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 restaurant, 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 which 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.”

Harvey tells us the, “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 fact, Harvey believes that this inability to manage agreement, rather than conflict, is the single most pressing issue of modern organizations.

Harvey defines The Abilene Paradox as follows: “Organizations frequently take actions in contradiction to the data they have for dealing with problems and, as a result, compound their problems rather than solve them.” Recalling last week’s post, the Abilene Paradox brings new light as to why many projects fail–nobody really bought into the plan to begin with but didn’t say anything. The crux of the Abilene Paradox is that most of us would rather act in a manner congruent with the group than stand on our own beliefs. This is the result of our propensity for self-doubt and not wanting to speak up and possibly embarrass ourselves. This could also be called the; “It’s better to stay silent than to open your mouth and remove all doubt syndrome.”

There are two basic behavioral motivators for our becoming victims of the Abilene Paradox. The first is called “Negative Fantasies.” Here an individual supports the group only because he/she fears being made a scapegoat, branded as disloyal, or ostracized as a non-team player. In many of today’s organizations this is a real and distinct outcome of speaking your mind.

Second, is what’s called “Separation Anxiety?” Here an individual suffers from the fear of the unknown because we’re naturally afraid of things we do not know about. What we don’t know about frightens us into inexplicable organizational behavior, i.e., going along with the group when we don’t really agree with the decision. This fear of the unknown afflicts whole organizations not just individuals.

Harvey tells us there is a consequence for those who “fall” for The Abilene Paradox. It’s called “Action Anxiety.” Action Anxiety happens as a result of buying into an action that’s in contradiction to what you feel is right. The anxiety that sets in is prompted by the fear that you will have to endure the negative consequences of the group’s actions. This is also called “having an amazing grasp for the obvious,” because what always happens is that when the group action fails they will “search for the guilty and punish the innocent.” Despite the fact that “going along with the group” makes you as guilty as everyone else, the fact that deep down inside you disagreed with the group you feel you are innocent of any negative results.

The Abilene Paradox could also be called “Group Tyranny,” because the impact of conformity pressures on individual behavior results in the loss of the individual’s distinctiveness in the organization, or group.

We’ve all heard of the term “Groupthink.” The difference between The Abilene Paradox and Groupthink is that in groupthink individuals are not acting contrary to their conscious wishes and generally feel good about the decisions the group has reached. Whereas, in The Abilene Paradox, the individuals are acting contrary to their own deep-down better judgment and are thus more likely to have negative feelings about the outcome. Both illustrate that groups not only have problems managing conflict and disagreements, but even agreements may also be a problem in a poorly functioning or dysfunctional organization or group.

The bottom line is that when people are part of a group, they behave differently than as individuals, thus The Abilene Paradox and Groupthink impact the workplace differently. Both contribute to organizational dysfunction.

As Abraham Lincoln was credited as saying “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.”

Stated another way “you can get agreement from some of the people some of the time or disagreement by some of the people some of the time, but you can never get agreement by all the people all of the time for the right reasons.”


5 Responses to “The Abilene Paradox”
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  4. Kristie Hoag says

    Thanks for finally writing about The Abilene Paradox; Loved it!

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