Have you ever ended up doing something that you didn’t want to do only to find out that no one else wanted to do it either? If you have then you have fallen foul of the Abilene Paradox.
Jerry Harvey describes the paradox as follows:
Organizations frequently take actions in contradiction to what they really want to do and therefore defeat the very purpose of what they are trying to achieve.
The inability to manage agreement is a major source of organisational dysfunction, and a key element to the paradox.
One hot afternoon the Harvey family were sitting in their Texas house playing dominoes. The heat was made tolerable by a fan on the back porch, and with some cold lemonade to drink the game represented the correct amount of physical and mental effort needed for such a day.
Harvey’s father-in-law suggested “let’s go to Abilene and have dinner at the cafeteria”.
Harvey thought, ‘What! Go to Abilene? 53 miles? In this dust and heat? Are you mad?’
Harvey’s wife said, “Sounds like a great idea. I’d like to go. How about you Jerry?”
Harvey felt unable to express his true thoughts so after tentative agreement, hedged his bets saying, “Mother might not want to go.”
His hopes were dashed as his mother-in-law stated, “Of course I would like to go. I haven’t been to Abilene for ages.”
The deal done the foursome completed their round trip to Abilene. It fulfilled all of Harvey’s worst expectations. The family was coated with a fine layer of Texas dust, stuck down with clinging perspiration. The food at the cafeteria was appalling. Four hours later the group returned to their home, hot and exhausted.
And then the truth…
The Mother-in-law eventually admitted that she would have rather stayed at home but only went along because “you three all seemed so enthusiastic about going”.
Harvey had to distance himself from this claim, “What do you mean ‘you all?’ I didn’t want to go. I only went along to satisfy the rest of you.”
Harvey’s wife then admitted that she had only agreed to be sociable and didn’t really want to go either.
The final blow was when Harvey’s Father-in-law piped up, “Listen, I never wanted to go Abilene, I just thought you might be bored. You visit seldom and I just wanted to be sure you enjoyed it. I would have preferred another game of dominoes”.
Harvey comments that here were four reasonably sensible people who, of their own volition, had just taken 106 mile round trip across a desert, in infernal heat, through dust, to eat unpalatable food in a dingy café in Abilene, when none of them wanted to go. To be more precise they had just done the exact opposite of what they wanted to do.
The Abilene paradox is caused by:
- Team members agree as individuals as to the nature of the situation facing the group.
- Teams agree privately, as individuals, on the steps that should be taken to cope with the situation they face.
- Team members fail to accurately communicate their views to each other, and lead each other into misperceiving the collective reality.
- Armed with invalid and inaccurate information, team members make collective decisions that lead them to actions contrary to what they want to do and produce results counterproductive to the organisations objectives.
- Team members can become dissatisfied and frustrated. They blame each other and ultimately the relevant authority figures.
- If the team members do not come to grips with the fundamental issue, the need to communicate and manage agreement, then the cycle repeats itself.
Are you on a ride to Abilene?
If you don’t fancy a metaphorical ride to a run-down café in some heat seared sweat pot then consider truthfully the answer to the following:
- When did communication last let you down?
- What stops you, or your colleagues, stating your thoughts?
- Do you and your colleagues have enough trust to place your distrust on the table?
- What will it take to stop you, or your company, taking a metaphorical journey to Abilene?