The Abilene Paradox refers to the inability of groups to manage agreement. Coined by management professor Jerry Harvey, it is based on an ill-advised car trip. Here’s the story:
In the 1960s, on a scorching hot afternoon in Coleman, Texas, Jerry, his wife, and his in-laws were playing checkers and drinking lemonade on the porch. Then the father-in-law suggested that they all drive to Abilene, 53 miles away, for dinner. One-by-one they each agreed that the car trip was a capital idea. So they hopped in their 1958 Buick (without A/C) and drove through the Texas desert to Abilene where they ate nondescript cafeteria food and drove back.
Upon returning to the porch, hot and exhausted, they each lamented that they had been perfectly happy on the porch, that going to Abilene was a bad idea, and that they had gone along just because they thought the others wanted to go. The father-in-law, who suggested the trip, said he hadn’t wanted to go but had suggested it because he was worried that the others were bored.
So, nobody had wanted to go, but each had said they did because they thought everyone else wanted to go.
The lesson of the Abilene Paradox is that group decisions can go awry when nobody wants to seem disagreeable. It’s applicable both to social groups and businesses. Prof. Harvey notes that “Organizations frequently take actions in contradiction to what they really want to do and therefore defeat the very purposes they are trying to achieve. It also deals with a major corollary of the paradox, which is that the inability to manage agreement is a major source of organization dysfunction.”
My favorite leadership/management book is The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni. In it, Lencioni lays out the five ways teams fail to work effectively together (the “5 dysfunctions”). Dysfunction #2 is Fear of Conflict. The author notes that “all great relationships, the ones that last over time, require productive conflict in order to grow.”
Notably, Teams that fear conflict…
- Have boring meetings
- Create environments where back-channel politics and personal attacks thrive
- Ignore controversial topics that are critical to team success
- Fail to tap into all the opinions and perspectives of team members
- Waste time and energy with posturing and interpersonal risk management
Whereas, teams that engage in conflict…
- Have lively, interesting meetings
- Extract and exploit the ideas of all team members
- Solve real problems quickly
- Minimize politics
- Put critical topics on the table for discussion
Thus, in both our social and business relationships, saying what we really think and want is critical. Healthy disagreement is productive, and the lesson of the Abilene Paradox is that others may be hiding what they really think, and it’s possible that saying what you really think will free them to honestly give their opinion.