Abilene Paradox

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”?

Categories: Leadership, Learning Managers, Managing & Leading

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4 replies

  1. I used to always ask my now dear departed wife things like: “should I turn here or go straight?” Then I would do the opposite of what she suggested. Sometimes we are just calibrating our own or another’s understanding of the world. But the ability to come to group decisions — good or bad ones — is simply a result of the fact that we are highly intelligent and SOCIAL animals. BTW, it’s Homo sapiens, either underlined or in italics, neither of which are available to me in the confines of this box. Of course, we could always “agree to disagree”!

  2. Agree I do. Leave it to my Biologist friend to remind me I should have paid closer attention when we studied genus and species protocol. Correction made. I am always pleased Al that you take the time to read and sometimes comment on these articles when I post them. Thanks! Ever been to Coleman??? Terry

  3. dear terry,

    thanks for sharing this. i must go to the youtube…can you imagine how different our work of 1980 would be if we had google and youtube to access.

    btw, one of the fellows i admired and got to follow died recently, adolfo suarez. well perhaps a year or two ago. i cannot think that repressive as spain was under franco, the economy there was in better shape. i earned $250 a month and yet lived ok, and i don’t remember 20 % unemployment overall or 30+ per cent for under 25s. i wish someone would find a solution to keeping people employed and paid when robots and machines take their jobs. i think that i am glad to have been a baby boomer and not a millennial. are you kids millennial yet?

    in about 2 weeks i leave for israel with a college classmate to spend holy week in jerusalem and visit several palestinian christian non profits. it is tough being a double minority in israel…..arab and then christian among a large majority of muslims.

    have a great day. warm regards from sunny colorado. your fan nan

    On Tue, Mar 7, 2017 at 10:53 AM, Terry Busch’s Blog on Managing and Leading wrote:

    > Terry Joseph Busch posted: “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 ofte” >

  4. The Abilene Paradox was required (reading) in one of my grad school courses (I believe this was the same year YouTube entered the scene). I was in my mid-twenties and hadn’t quite had enough group-think experiences to relate this to as I do now.

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