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The Abilene Paradox Cheat Sheet by

management     symptoms     elements     abilene     paradox     agreement


The Abilene paradox or effect is relevant in the management of group agreement. It is when a group of indivi­duals collec­tively agree on a course of action based on of what each thinks the group’s prefer­ences are, but the decision is actually counter to most of the members opinions. Each member believes their preference is different from the group’s and therefore do not raise an objection or simply follow what they believe the collective decision will be.

The Abilene Paradox was coined by Jerry B. Harvey, Professor Emeritus of Management at The George Washington University and author of “The Abilene Paradox and Other Medita­tions on Manage­ment.” The Paradox is explained using a parable of a family who ends up making an uncomf­ortable trip that none of them wanted.
How often do bad decisions get go ahead on in an organi­zation? How often to colleagues waste valuable time and effort on projects that everyone knew was doomed from the start?

The Abilene Paradox (Psych­olo­gical Effects)

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 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 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 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.

The Abilene Paradox

Elements of the Paradox

According to Harvey, the issue that leads to the Abilene Paradox is an inability to manage agreement, not conflict. The following symptoms are said to exist in organi­zations that tend to fall for the paradox:
Organization members agree privately, as indivi­duals, as to the nature of the situation or problem facing the organi­zation.
Organization members agree privately, as indivi­duals, as to the steps that would be required to cope with the situation or problem they face.
Organization members fail to accurately commun­icate their desires and/or beliefs to one another. In fact, they do just the opposite and thereby lead one another into misper­ceiving the collective reality.
With such invalid and inaccurate inform­ation, organi­zation members make collective decisions that lead them to take actions contrary to what they want to do, and thereby arrive at results that are counte­rpr­odu­ctive to the organi­zat­ion’s intent and purposes.
As a result of taking actions that are counte­rpr­odu­ctive, organi­zation members experience frustr­ation, anger, irrita­tion, and dissat­isf­action with their organi­zation. Conseq­uently, they form subgroups with trusted acquai­ntances and blame other subgroups for the organi­zat­ion’s dilemma.
Finally, if organi­zation members do not deal with the generic issue-the inability to manage agreem­ent-the cycle repeats itself with greater intensity.

Symptoms of the Paradox

When your organi­zation makes decisions, do you find the same dysfun­ctional activities repeated over and over? If you want to identify the paradox at work within your group, look out for:

Members exhibiting different opinions in the group as opposed to one-on­-one.
It’s common for bad news to have trouble flowing upstream, but if no one’s telling you the plan is bad, you’ll never know.
Members are discou­raged from dissen­ting, dissent is often seen as lack of commit­ment?
When a team member offers constr­uctive criticism, is it encour­aged? or are they accused of failing to be a team player?
Members seem frustrated or resentful towards management and other team members.
If your organi­zation has a habit of letting bad ideas come to fruition, then it stands to reason that someone’s being blamed for each failure. There’s plenty of reasons for employees to be resentful of manage­ment- some is reasonable and some isn’t. In this case, you’re looking for resent for being blamed- often for tasks that when assigned were already doomed to failure.
Members avoid respon­sib­ility or even attempt to blame others.
The same systemic habit of failure mentioned above often leads to a culture of blame. If no one feels the freedom to point out bad ideas, then no one wants to take respon­sib­ility for them either.
Members exhibit a lack of trust.
Eventu­ally, all of these things erode trust. Employees distrust management that doesn’t listen to their concerns and that delegates not only tasks, but also blame for failed initia­tives. Corporate politics then lead to backst­abbing and blame-­shi­fting among employees under such manage­ment, as everyone does what they can to avoid being targeted.
All decisions require unanimous agreem­ent.
Leadership by committee can breed horrible decisi­on-­making. On the one hand, it may increase buy-in. On the other hand, every member is incent­ivized to agree as soon as possible, or risk being stuck in committee session longer than they want, as well as risk the image of dissenter.
Very little dissent from group opinion is observ­ed.
Again, lack of dissent is not always a good thing; in fact, if a manager isn’t encoun­tering any dissent, that should be a red flag. You have a choice- either go on believing that the failure to argue with you is because all of your decisions arise from bullet­proof logic and infallible judgment, or you can probe to find out if the Abilene Paradox is alive and thriving under your leader­ship.

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