Posted in Leadership

Abilene Paradox

The Abilene Paradox refers to a situation when a group makes a collective decision that is counter to the thoughts and feelings of its individual members.  

The Abilene Paradox was introduced by management thinker Jerry B. Harvey, Professor, Emeritus of Management at The George Washington University, in an article on the subject. 

It occurs because human beings have a natural aversion to going against the feelings of a group – they want to conform socially. According to Harvey, the paradox may be driven because individuals believe they will experience negative attitudes or feelings if they ‘speak up’ on a topic. And if no one ‘speaks-up‘ then the group ends up  making a decision that is quite opposite to the wishes and feelings of the group.

The below example illustrates this concept beautifully – 
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 north] 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 as the drive. 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.

In groupthink theories, the Abilene paradox theory is used to illustrate that groups not only have problems managing disagreements, but that agreements may also be a problem in a poorly functioning group.

There are three things that leaders can do to avoid their teams being a victim of Abilene Paradox – 

  1. Create a safe environment where team members are encouraged to voice divergent opinions freely
  2. Expect disagreement in teams – that is the reason why diversity is encouraged in teams so that you can get different perspectives on critical issues. 
  3. Actively listen to feedback – leaders must be willing to listen to feedback and not surround themselves with only the “yes” men

Do you want to share any of your examples?


I am a software consultant by profession and reside in Hyderabad, India. I love to travel, listen to music, cook and make friends.

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