Sunday, June 12, 2011

“The Abilene Paradox”

“The Abilene Paradox”
by The Daily Omnivore

“The Abilene paradox is a paradox in which a group of people collectively decide on a course of action that is counter to the preferences of any of the individuals in the group. It involves a common breakdown of group communication in which each member mistakenly believes that their own preferences are counter to the group’s and, therefore, does not raise objections. A common phrase relating to the Abilene paradox is a desire to not ‘rock the boat.’ The Abilene paradox originates from an anecdote by management expert Jerry B. Harvey:

“It was a hot afternoon in Coleman, Texas, in the early 1970s when Texas native Jerry Harvey, professor of management science at George Washington University, was visiting his in-laws with his wife. They were playing dominoes and sipping lemonade in the living room as the wind was blowing topsoil through the opened windows. Harvey recalled the dreaded words of his father-in-law, "Let's get in the car and go to Abilene and have dinner at the cafeteria." On that 104-degree Sunday afternoon, Harvey thought, "Fifty-three miles in this dust storm and heat in an un-airconditioned 1958 Buick?" But then his wife chimed in, "Sounds great. I'd like to go. How about you, Jerry," Jerry didn't disagree. 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. "The heat was brutal. Perspiration had cemented a fine layer of dust to our skin by the time we arrived," Harvey said. When they arrive at the cafeteria, the food is as bad as the drive. On their return from the "hole-in-the-wall cafeteria," Harvey described "the family fight of the decade"- everyone complaining that they only went to Abilene because everyone else wanted to go. 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. "We'd done just the opposite of what we wanted to do. The whole situation didn't make sense," he explains. 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.”

But Harvey's family experience is not atypical and led Harvey to coin the phrase, "The Abilene Paradox." Events frequently gather momentum and take on a life of their own, despite the fact that nobody wants to take part in them. "The problem of contemporary organizations- corporations, voluntary and governmental institutions, and associations- is their inability to cope with the fact that we often agree with one another and are not in conflict. But since we are not honest with one another, it keeps us from doing anything significant."

According to Harvey, there are four landmarks that cause people to make various decisions. Here is a brief description of each landmark, which Harvey hopes will provide organizations with a better understanding of the risks that are an inevitable part of the journey to Abilene.

Action anxiety: We take actions contradicting our understanding of problems because thinking about acting in accordance with what we believe needs to be done makes us intensely anxious. Thus, we decide to pursue an unworkable project, for example, rather than acting in a manner congruent with our beliefs.

Negative fantasies: Action anxiety is partly caused by negative fantasies that we have about what will happen if we act in accordance with our understanding of what is sensible. They provide us with an excuse that releases us psychologically- both in our eyes, and the eyes of others- from the responsibility of having to be the problem solver.

Real risk: Risk is a reality of life. All actions have consequences. As a result of our unwillingness to accept risk, we may opt to take our organizations to Abilene rather than run the risk of ending up somewhere worse.

Fear of separation: We are afraid of things- separation, alienation, and loneliness- we know about. Research shows that we have a need to feel connected and wanted. We are afraid to take risks that may result in a separation from others. This fear ultimately causes organizations, for example, to fund projects that none of its members want.

The phenomenon may be a form of groupthink. It is easily explained by social psychology theories of social conformity and social influence which suggest that human beings are often very averse to acting contrary to the trend of the group. Likewise, it can be observed in psychology that indirect cues and hidden motives often lie behind peoples' statements and acts, frequently because social disincentives discourage individuals from openly voicing their feelings or pursuing their desires. The crux of the theory is that groups have just as many problems managing their agreements as they do their disagreements. This observation rings true among many researchers in the social sciences and tends to reinforce other theories of individual and group behavior.”

The theory is often used to help explain extremely poor business decisions, especially notions of the superiority of ‘rule by committee.’ A technique mentioned in the study and/or training of management, as well as practical guidance by consultants, is that group members, when the time comes for a group to make decisions, should ask each other, ‘Are we going to Abilene?’ to determine whether their decision is legitimately desired by the group’s members or merely a result of this kind of groupthink.”

Hat tip to Alex Noble for this material.

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