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.

Main Guides:

Read Next: BiasesBounded RationalityMandela EffectDunning-Kruger EffectLindy EffectCrowding Out EffectBandwagon Effect.

Connected Thinking Frameworks

Convergent vs. Divergent Thinking

Convergent thinking occurs when the solution to a problem can be found by applying established rules and logical reasoning. Whereas divergent thinking is an unstructured problem-solving method where participants are encouraged to develop many innovative ideas or solutions to a given problem. Where convergent thinking might work for larger, mature organizations where divergent thinking is more suited for startups and innovative companies.

Critical Thinking

Critical thinking involves analyzing observations, facts, evidence, and arguments to form a judgment about what someone reads, hears, says, or writes.

Systems Thinking

Systems thinking is a holistic means of investigating the factors and interactions that could contribute to a potential outcome. It is about thinking non-linearly, and understanding the second-order consequences of actions and input into the system.

Vertical Thinking

Vertical thinking, on the other hand, is a problem-solving approach that favors a selective, analytical, structured, and sequential mindset. The focus of vertical thinking is to arrive at a reasoned, defined solution.

Maslow’s Hammer

Maslow’s Hammer, otherwise known as the law of the instrument or the Einstellung effect, is a cognitive bias causing an over-reliance on a familiar tool. This can be expressed as the tendency to overuse a known tool (perhaps a hammer) to solve issues that might require a different tool. This problem is persistent in the business world where perhaps known tools or frameworks might be used in the wrong context (like business plans used as planning tools instead of only investors’ pitches).

Peter Principle

The Peter Principle was first described by Canadian sociologist Lawrence J. Peter in his 1969 book The Peter Principle. The Peter Principle states that people are continually promoted within an organization until they reach their level of incompetence.

Straw Man Fallacy

The straw man fallacy describes an argument that misrepresents an opponent’s stance to make rebuttal more convenient. The straw man fallacy is a type of informal logical fallacy, defined as a flaw in the structure of an argument that renders it invalid.

Streisand Effect

The Streisand Effect is a paradoxical phenomenon where the act of suppressing information to reduce visibility causes it to become more visible. In 2003, Streisand attempted to suppress aerial photographs of her Californian home by suing photographer Kenneth Adelman for an invasion of privacy. Adelman, who Streisand assumed was paparazzi, was instead taking photographs to document and study coastal erosion. In her quest for more privacy, Streisand’s efforts had the opposite effect.


As highlighted by German psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer in the paper “Heuristic Decision Making,” the term heuristic is of Greek origin, meaning “serving to find out or discover.” More precisely, a heuristic is a fast and accurate way to make decisions in the real world, which is driven by uncertainty.

Recognition Heuristic

The recognition heuristic is a psychological model of judgment and decision making. It is part of a suite of simple and economical heuristics proposed by psychologists Daniel Goldstein and Gerd Gigerenzer. The recognition heuristic argues that inferences are made about an object based on whether it is recognized or not.

Representativeness Heuristic

The representativeness heuristic was first described by psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. The representativeness heuristic judges the probability of an event according to the degree to which that event resembles a broader class. When queried, most will choose the first option because the description of John matches the stereotype we may hold for an archaeologist.

Take-The-Best Heuristic

The take-the-best heuristic is a decision-making shortcut that helps an individual choose between several alternatives. The take-the-best (TTB) heuristic decides between two or more alternatives based on a single good attribute, otherwise known as a cue. In the process, less desirable attributes are ignored.


The concept of cognitive biases was introduced and popularized by the work of Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman in 1972. Biases are seen as systematic errors and flaws that make humans deviate from the standards of rationality, thus making us inept at making good decisions under uncertainty.

Bundling Bias

The bundling bias is a cognitive bias in e-commerce where a consumer tends not to use all of the products bought as a group, or bundle. Bundling occurs when individual products or services are sold together as a bundle. Common examples are tickets and experiences. The bundling bias dictates that consumers are less likely to use each item in the bundle. This means that the value of the bundle and indeed the value of each item in the bundle is decreased.

Barnum Effect

The Barnum Effect is a cognitive bias where individuals believe that generic information – which applies to most people – is specifically tailored for themselves.

First-Principles Thinking

First-principles thinking – sometimes called reasoning from first principles – is used to reverse-engineer complex problems and encourage creativity. It involves breaking down problems into basic elements and reassembling them from the ground up. Elon Musk is among the strongest proponents of this way of thinking.

Ladder Of Inference

The ladder of inference is a conscious or subconscious thinking process where an individual moves from a fact to a decision or action. The ladder of inference was created by academic Chris Argyris to illustrate how people form and then use mental models to make decisions.

Six Thinking Hats Model

The Six Thinking Hats model was created by psychologist Edward de Bono in 1986, who noted that personality type was a key driver of how people approached problem-solving. For example, optimists view situations differently from pessimists. Analytical individuals may generate ideas that a more emotional person would not, and vice versa.

Second-Order Thinking

Second-order thinking is a means of assessing the implications of our decisions by considering future consequences. Second-order thinking is a mental model that considers all future possibilities. It encourages individuals to think outside of the box so that they can prepare for every and eventuality. It also discourages the tendency for individuals to default to the most obvious choice.

Lateral Thinking

Lateral thinking is a business strategy that involves approaching a problem from a different direction. The strategy attempts to remove traditionally formulaic and routine approaches to problem-solving by advocating creative thinking, therefore finding unconventional ways to solve a known problem. This sort of non-linear approach to problem-solving, can at times, create a big impact.

Bounded Rationality

Bounded rationality is a concept attributed to Herbert Simon, an economist and political scientist interested in decision-making and how we make decisions in the real world. In fact, he believed that rather than optimizing (which was the mainstream view in the past decades) humans follow what he called satisficing.

Dunning-Kruger Effect

The Dunning-Kruger effect describes a cognitive bias where people with low ability in a task overestimate their ability to perform that task well. Consumers or businesses that do not possess the requisite knowledge make bad decisions. What’s more, knowledge gaps prevent the person or business from seeing their mistakes.

Occam’s Razor

Occam’s Razor states that one should not increase (beyond reason) the number of entities required to explain anything. All things being equal, the simplest solution is often the best one. The principle is attributed to 14th-century English theologian William of Ockham.

Mandela Effect

The Mandela effect is a phenomenon where a large group of people remembers an event differently from how it occurred. The Mandela effect was first described in relation to Fiona Broome, who believed that former South African President Nelson Mandela died in prison during the 1980s. While Mandela was released from prison in 1990 and died 23 years later, Broome remembered news coverage of his death in prison and even a speech from his widow. Of course, neither event occurred in reality. But Broome was later to discover that she was not the only one with the same recollection of events.

Crowding-Out Effect

The crowding-out effect occurs when public sector spending reduces spending in the private sector.

Bandwagon Effect

The bandwagon effect tells us that the more a belief or idea has been adopted by more people within a group, the more the individual adoption of that idea might increase within the same group. This is the psychological effect that leads to herd mentality. What in marketing can be associated with social proof.

Read Next: BiasesBounded RationalityMandela EffectDunning-Kruger

Read Next: Bounded RationalityHeuristics

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