The Abilene Paradox

Have you ever noticed that sometimes you say yes when really you mean no.

When a group of people do this it is called the Abilene Paradox. Group agreement isn’t always what it seems.

The Abilene Paradox was coined by Jerry B. Harvey, Professor Emeritus of Management at The George Washington University. He is the author of “The Abilene Paradox and Other Meditations on Management

Harvey tells the story of a family outing one hot day who end up making an uncomfortable trip that none of them wanted. This parable is used as a metaphor for how groups frequently agree to take actions that contradict what individual members really want to do or believe is right.

Our problems stem not from conflict but agreement! People don’t want to rock the boat so they go along with an idea even if they think the idea is an awful one. We have a natural aversion to going against the feelings of a group so we conform.

Does that sound familiar to you? Have you recognised the Abilene Paradox in your staff meetings? How many of your staff are really on board and agreeing?

Symbolically, have your staff boarded a bus to Abilene?

In this situation you would hope that you have created a culture where people can speak up and speak out and not be afraid of saying what they think without fearing that they will be labelled as negative or toxic.

Sounds a bit like ‘group think’ but  when the Abilene Paradox occurs, the individual members of the group feel the overall decision is a poor one – in group think that isn’t always the case.

The Abilene group all went to Abilene when they all preferred something else – this could just be what is happening in your staffroom. Does yes actually mean no?

No one wants the scent of the Abilene trail wafting from their meetings. It’s a strange phenomenon that also occurs in couples, families and members of an organisation, including the government.

For an entertaining introduction to this fascinating paradox then see the video by Wesleyan University – then think about how many people end up getting married that don’t actually want to get married!

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