abilene-paradox

What Is The Abilene paradox? The Abilene Paradox In A Nutshell

The Abilene paradox was first introduced by management expert Jerry B. Harvey in a 1974 article entitled The Abilene Paradox: The Management of Agreement. The Abilene paradox occurs when a group of people collectively decide to act in a way that contradicts the preferences of most or all the individuals in the group.

Understanding the Abilene paradox

In the article, Harvey recounted the parable which gave the paradox its name. On a hot today in Coleman, Texas, a husband, wife, and her parents were sitting on the porch quite comfortably sipping lemonade. The father-in-law suggest driving 53 miles to Abilene to eat at a cafeteria, a suggestion the other three decided to go along with despite feeling apprehensive. 

The travel to Abilene in a car without air conditioning was unpleasant, and the meal at the cafeteria wasn’t particularly appetizing either. On their way back to Coleman, the members of the group complained about the decision to go to Abilene. Despite their initial opposition, the individuals went along with the idea because they didn’t want to upset anyone. 

Why does the Abilene paradox occur?

The Abilene paradox occurs because of a fundamental inability to manage agreement. Each member mistakenly believes their preferences differ from the rest of the group and as a consequence, does not raise any objections. This is a major problem in organizations that have become so adept at managing conflict that the skill of managing agreement is underdeveloped or absent.

Favoring agreement over speaking up can be explained by various aspects of social psychology, including theories relating to social conformity and social influence. These theories suggest individuals are extremely averse to acting in a way that contravenes the prevailing actions of a group.

Individual aversiveness, in turn, might be explained by what Harvey called “negative fantasies”. Here, the individual experiences unpleasant visualizations detailing how the group may act if they are honest with their thoughts or feelings. In situations with a palpable or realistic chance of the group excluding them entirely, the individual may pre-emptively experience separation anxiety.

Symptoms of the Abilene paradox in an organizational context

Failing to manage agreement may not seem like such a bad thing at first glance, but it can have serious implications for a company.

Following is a look at the six symptoms of the paradox as described by Harvey himself:

  1. Employees agree as to the nature of a problem or situation facing the organization. However, they agree privately without informing others.
  2. Employees also agree as to the steps required to rectify the problem or situation. In the Abilene parable, maintaining the status quo by remaining on the porch sipping lemonade would have satisfied individual and group needs. This agreement is also made privately.
  3. Private agreement causes employees to fail to communicate their desires and beliefs to one another. This causes every other member of the group to misperceive the collective reality. 
  4. This misperception then causes each individual to act contrary to their desires with inaccurate and invalid information. In a business context, employees act in ways that are counterproductive to organizational purpose, intent, and success.
  5. Counterproductive actions then causes employee frustration and anger as employees become dissatisfied with the organization. They tend to form subgroups with trusted acquaintances and direct their grievances toward other subgroups and authority figures.
  6. If the ability to manage agreement is absent, the cycle repeats itself with greater intensity. In the Abilene parable, the group became conscious of the paradox, thereby ensuring their problems did not intensify.

Avoiding the Abilene paradox

Here are three ways to avoid the negative impacts of the paradox in any organization:

  1. Create a safe environment – if the individual is reluctant to share an opposing view, then they must be encouraged by creating an environment where it is safe to do so. Specifically, there should be a culture of trust, collaboration, and empathy with team leaders setting the example.
  2. Actively listen to feedback – opinions that go against the grain must be actively considered by leadership. This helps diffuse potential conflict before it has the chance to undermine the organization. It also helps avoid a situation where employees become cynical about their chances of being heard or instituting change. Diversity of input and opinion is key, no matter how unpopular or unconventional.
  3. Expect disagreement – it is important to consider disagreement as a healthy by-product of teams with diverse perspectives. In collaborative organizations, disagreement is analyzed to enrich and validate the final decision.

Key takeaways:

  • The Abilene paradox occurs when a group of people collectively decide to act in a way that contradicts the preferences of most or all the individuals in the group.
  • The Abilene paradox occurs because of a fundamental inability to manage agreement. Each member mistakenly believes their preferences differ from the rest of the group and as a consequence, is fearful of voicing their concerns. This inability to raise objections is rooted in aspects of social influence and social conformity theory.
  • Avoiding the Abilene paradox in organizations means creating a safe environment, actively listening to feedback, and reframing disagreement as a function of healthy and diverse teams.

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