“Let’s reach a consensus on what we should do next.”
All of us have heard this phrase – or something similar – from a group or team leader. And what’s not to like about this approach? After all, collaboration and cooperation are essential for a team to be effective. Unfortunately, there are times when a group can have an apparent consensus view and later regret the outcome of their collective decision. In 1974, Dr. Jerry Harvey, a professor of management science at George Washington University, introduced the term Abilene Paradox to explain this group behavior.
The Abilene Paradox involves a common breakdown of group communication in which each member mistakenly believes that their own preferences are counter to the group’s. As a result, no objections are raised. Some common phrases linked to the Abilene Paradox are to not “rock the boat” or to “go along to get along.”
This phenomenon is explained by theories of social conformity and influence, which suggest people are often very averse to acting contrary to the trend of a group. According to Harvey, the phenomenon may occur when people experience action-anxiety. People are concerned that the group could express negative attitudes towards them if they do not go along.
The name of this group behavior is derived from an incident that Harvey recounts in his article published in Organizational Dynamics. A summary of the story is given below.
On a hot afternoon 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 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.
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.
Here is a trailer for a humorous video that takes a deeper dive into the Abilene Paradox – how it can happen and the implications when it does.
There are many case studies that support the notion that when people in a group fail to speak up, the resulting outcome can range from unsatisfying (a project failure) to lethal (the Challenger disaster). A 2006 study by the Concours Group, Silence Fails, demonstrates that leaders can substantially improve their organization’s ability to execute on high-stakes projects and initiatives by breaking a code of silence on five common yet largely un-discussed problems that contribute significantly to almost all project failures.
If there is a norm of not speaking up in your organization, it is critical as a leader that you show a new norm for candor. This starts with your expectations. You create the beliefs that people hold by the things that you say and do. It doesn’t take long for everyone in the group to get the message that “I am not interested in what you have to say if you disagree with me,” if any contrarian view is dismissed or minimized. Only through repeated experiences of candor being positively recognized and encouraged can you hope to break an existing conspiracy of silence.
Often, however, the belief that someone can not speak freely about a problem or concern without negative consequence can be more subtle. It may manifest itself as people being hesitant or perhaps not disclosing all that they know about a situation. In this case, all it may take is a forum that encourages the views of everyone in the room. If you can offer a safe way for every person to express their perspective, you will go a long way toward getting all the ideas and concerns on the table. Once these issues are brought into the light of day, they can be addressed and surprises can be avoided. I review an effective method for encouraging these unspoken concerns in another post that discusses the Six Thinking Hats.
After all, do you really want to go to Abilene on a hot dusty afternoon? Unless you speak up, you may soon find yourself there!
Harvey, J. B. (1974). “The Abilene paradox: the management of agreement”. Organizational Dynamics 3: 63–80. doi:10.1016/0090-2616(74)90005-9.
Silence Fails: The Five Crucial Conversations for Flawless Execution. The Concours Group. 2006.
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