The Abilene Paradox

I got this as a forward on WhatsApp and I am reproducing parts of it – I find the concept fascinating and would love for the readers of my blog to contribute their thoughts as well.

*The Abilene Paradox*

What is the Abilene Paradox ? Prof. Jerry Harvey calls it *“The Inability to Manage Agreement”.*

The Abilene Paradox occurs when a group of people collectively decide on a course of action that is contrary to the preferences of most of the individuals in the group.

Prof. Harvey states in his paper ‘The Abilene Paradox’: “Organizations frequently take actions in contradiction to what they really want to do and therefore defeat the very purpose they are trying to achieve”. This is the inability to manage agreement.

He adds: “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 the corporate world, when the top boss throws an idea, the group immediately agrees. This is because everyone in the group thinks he would look stupid if he disagrees.  Standing out as a lone voice is very embarrassing. This leads the group to decide on ‘yes’ when ‘no’ would have been the personal (and the correct) response of the majority.

How often have you fallen prey to the Abilene Paradox ? At work and at home – At work it need not be just the boss, it could be your influential peer deciding on something for the whole group and no one objects, finally the whole thing just doesn’t work out as expected. I was part of a training program once, designed by a well meaning young lady but she never consulted anyone except the big boss and a couple of my peers who agreed with her. A large team of executives spent two days in excruciating boredom and got nothing off it :). Probably it was the Abilene Paradox at work, the inability to manage agreement. No one objected, but no one enjoyed it either.

At home, children, parents often decide on things like a dinner outing to a place where only one member enjoys the food while others agreed to go along because they didn’t want to hurt this family member’s feelings … the end result is an unsatisfactory meal.

There is a lot of focus on managing conflict and many dollars are spent training people to manage conflict while no one pays attention to how agreement is managed.

Very interesting paradox this Abilene Paradox is !!

2 thoughts on “The Abilene Paradox”

  1. Management guys (and I belong to the fraternity) like to use fancy words to describe a phenomenon. Nothing wrong per se. Only, do remember that much of these weres covered in our fables of long ago— because human failings have been the same over centuries. Abilene Paradox— doesn’t it remind you a fable that grandma told you? The Emperor’s new clothes?

    • Hahahaha I have been of the same opinion. But the reality that none of us want to admit to is most of the new found knowledge is rehashed – while basics remain the same, like you said. I was reading some of James Allen’s books and its fascinating to see his thoughts of leading a team are as relevant today as in his time and while Patrick Lencioni says it differently in “5 dysfunctions of a team” there is not much thats new there :):).


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