What do you call the phenomana when a group of people silently agree on the dubious merits of an idea or course of action but for whatever reason choose not to articulate their thoughts and proceed to do precisely the opposite of what they think should be done? The late George Washington Psychology Professor Jerry Harvey called this phenomena the “Abilene Paradox”.
In 1981, I had the opportunity to view a training film regarding the “Abilene Paradox”, which blessedly is still available on You Tube. It features the concept’s author telling the story of a Harvey family vacation to Coleman Texas with his wonderful Texan drawl and dry sense of humor. Most impressive was the ease with which Jerry managed to explain a complex behavioral concept in plain language via a powerful story.
Jerry’s story involved a dreadfully hot Sunday in Coleman when Jerry, his wife and his in-laws, piled into an un-airconditioned car he describes as the oven, drove the 52 miles between Coleman and Abilene Texas in 106 degree heat, to eat a thoroughly disgusting meal at a local Cafeteria. The trip was his father-in-law’s suggestion and despite the fact that everyone — including the father-in-law himself as it turned out — secretly thought it was a bad idea, everybody found themselves mouthing their agreement with the plan and off they went. It was not until a full-blown argument later that evening they realized they had actually been in complete silent agreement on the idea’s dubious merit. The father-in-law’s explanation for his fateful suggestion was “I was simply making conversation”.
The Abilene Paradox is simply the frequent inability of people in contemporary organizations be they business, government, academic, church, or family, to cope with the fact that while they may silently agree with one another about the questionable merits of something”, they are prepared for various reasons to do it anyway despite the negative consequences they clearly anticipate.
Believe me, the more you think about the Abilene Paradox, the more you will see it all around you. I certainly did throughout my management career, often interrupting group discussions with the question “hey, are we on our way to Abilene”? I commend the You Tube video to you. You are not likely to forget its message. You are also likely to discover that in many situations the most important question you can ask of others is “does anybody actually think this isn’t a good idea”?