Abilene Paradox

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Description of Abilene Paradox. Explanation.


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Definition Abilene Paradox. Description.

The Abilene Paradox is a phenomenon in which the limits of a particular situation seems to force a group of people to act in a way that is the opposite of what they actually want. This situation can occur when groups continue with misguided activities which no group member desires because no member is willing to raise objections, or displease the others. The term was coined by Jerry B. Harvey in his 1988 book "The Abilene Paradox and other Meditations on Management". Here is the anecdote in the book which Harvey uses to elucidate the paradox:

On a hot afternoon visiting in Coleman, Texas, the family is comfortably playing dominoes on a porch, until the father-in-law suggests that they take a trip to Abilene (53 miles away) for dinner. The wife says, "Sounds like a great idea." The husband, despite having reservations because the drive is long and hot, thinks that his preferences must be out-of-step with the group and says, "Sounds good to me. I just hope your mother wants to go." The mother-in-law then says, "Of course I want to go. I haven't been to Abilene in a long time."

The drive is hot, dusty, and long. When they arrive at the cafeteria, the food is as bad. They arrive back home four hours later, exhausted.

One of them dishonestly says, "It was a great trip, wasn't it." The mother-in-law says that, actually, she would rather have stayed home, but went along since the other three were so enthusiastic. The husband says, "I wasn't delighted to be doing what we were doing. I only went to satisfy the rest of you." The wife says, "I just went along to keep you happy. I would have had to be crazy to want to go out in the heat like that." The father-in-law then says that he only suggested it because he thought the others might be bored.

The group sits back, perplexed that they together decided to take a trip which none of them wanted. They each would have preferred to sit comfortably, but did not admit to it when they still had time to enjoy the afternoon.

Six characteristics emblematic of a group failing to manage agreement effectively

  1. Members individually, but privately, agree about their current situation.

  2. Members agree, again in private, about what it would take to deal with the situation.

  3. Members fail to communicate their desires and/or beliefs to one another, and, most importantly, sometimes even communicate the very opposite of their wishes based on what they assume are the desires and opinions of others. People make incorrect assumptions about consensus.

  4. Based on inaccurate perceptions and assumptions, members make a collective decision that leads to action.

  5. Members experience frustration, anger, and dissatisfaction with the organization.

  6. Members are destined to repeat this unsatisfying and dysfunctional behavior if they do not begin to understand the genesis of mismanaged agreement.

To avoid the Abilene Paradox from occurring in business meetings, a useful technique is, when the time comes to make decisions, that somebody should ask: 'Are we going to Abilene here?', to determine the decision is merely a result of this kind of Groupthink, Spiral of Silence or Core Group Theory or is legitimately desired by the meeting.

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Abilene Paradox Special Interest Group

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Best Practices - Abilene Paradox Premium

Expert Tips - Abilene Paradox Premium

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Resources - Abilene Paradox Premium

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Compare with: Bandwagon Effect Bias  |  False Consensus Bias  |  Cognitive Bias  |  Synectics  |  Bounded Rationality  |  Active Listening  |  Groupthink  |  Spiral of Silence  |  Core Group Theory  |  Team Management Profile  |  Six Thinking Hats  |  Delphi Method  |  Metaplan  |  Contingency Theory  |  Framing  |  Levels of Culture  |  Changing Organization Cultures  |  Competing Values Framework  |  Brainstorming  |  Spiral Dynamics  |  Whole Brain Model  |  Analogical Strategic Reasoning  |  Lateral Thinking  |  Analogical Strategic Reasoning  |  Gestalt Theory  |  TRIZ  |  Mind Mapping  |  Root Cause Analysis  |  Dialectical Inquiry  |  Johari Window  |  Delphi Method  |  Paralysis by Analysis

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