The 'Abilene Paradox'

We have a hard time speaking our true feelings in the moment out of fear they could come across as disloyal or confrontational. 

On a hot summer day in a small town in west Texas, a family is sitting on a porch, enjoying some fresh cold tea, when the grandfather suggests they all take a ride to Abilene for dinner. 

The family's father feels it’s a bad idea but is afraid to offer his opinion, so he foolishly says, “Sounds like a great idea to me.” Then everyone else chimes in with their enthusiasm for the drive, and before long, they are on the dirt highway headed for supper. When they return after a long, hot ride and some horrible food, the mother-in-law says, “That wasn’t a great trip.” Then her daughter adds, “I just went along because I wanted to keep the group happy.” The husband, who first supported the idea, says he only went because he didn’t want to disappoint anyone. 

That little tale is known as the Abilene Paradox, first introduced by management expert Jerry B. Harvey in 1974. The paradox involves a common breakdown of group communication in which each member mistakenly believes that his/her preferences run counter to the group's. Therefore, they do not raise any objections. A common phrase relating to the Abilene Paradox is a desire to not "rock the boat." It differs from “groupthink” because the Abilene Paradox is characterized by an inability to manage agreement.

December is a time for a change in the leadership world, and we’ll likely see the Abilene Paradox occur frequently. Many university and professional sports teams will discuss how they want to avoid groupthink and find their next coach by canvassing the country looking for the best possible candidate. A lot of people will go along with the plan. But no one will mention the Abilene Paradox until after.

Much like that family traveling to their dinner, the truth only comes out when the bad results become obvious. Why? Well, because we have a hard time speaking our true feelings in the moment out of fear they could come across as disloyal or confrontational. And being loyal is often considered more important than speaking our inner feelings. We’re supposedly not to rock the boat during critical times — we must play nice and go along with the plan, thus playing right into the Abilene Paradox. 

The best way to ensure we avoid this is to insist on honesty from all. To encourage rocking the boat, consider hiring some boat-rockers from outside to ensure the “real truth is uncovered.” Let everyone understand that even if they don’t support the hire, their voices must be heard. Remember, it’s O.K. not to have everyone on the same page. It means we have avoided groupthink and, even more importantly, we’ve avoided the Abilene Paradox.

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