In 1981, I had the opportunity to view a training film regarding the “Abilene Paradox”. It featured the concept’s author the late Jerry B. Harvey — then a professor of psychology at George Washington University. I have never forgotten this film and often over the years wished I could see it again.
OK, I am a slow learner sometimes but recently I wondered if You Tube might be of help. Sure enough, there it was.
In part, what made Jerry’s presentation of the concept so captivating and memorable, was his wonderful Texan drawl and dry sense of humor as he explained the concept by telling the story of a Harvey family vacation to Coleman Texas. I laughed so hard the first time I saw it I had to watch the film again to be certain I completely understood the concept.
But more impressive was the ease with which Jerry managed to explain a complex behavioral concept in plain language via a POWERFUL NARRATIVE; one whose general details I can still recall. Subsequently, I came to see the Abilene Paradox acted out regularly in my management experience, personal life, and the political and economic world around me. Talk about the power of story telling in our lives.
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 as Jerry Harvey describes it is the inability of contemporary organizations — business, government, academic, church, family, etc — to “cope with the fact that we agree with one another”, not our inability to “cope with the fact that we are in conflict”. In fact, Harvey argues, much of the conflict in today’s organizations is often “phony”, designed as an excuse to prevent them — for whatever reasons — from doing something significant.
Sound familiar? It certainly does to me. Hard-wired into our human DNA is a disturbing capacity for we Homo sapiens acting in groups to be in complete agreement with each other on the merits of an idea, yet manage to do precisely the opposite. While I could say much more about this topic, I commend Jerry’s book and film to you instead. The book is available in paperback and You Tube makes 1981 seem like yesterday. Moreover, the rich real-world examples Jerry offers beyond his story in the film, at times boggle the mind.
Believe me, the more you come to understand and think about the Abilene Paradox, the more you will see it all around you.