What is the Abilene Paradox?
Jerry B. Harvey, a management expert, first introduced the Abilene paradox in a 1974 article titled The Abilene Paradox: The Management of Agreement. The Abilene paradox occurs when a group of people decides to act in a way that contradicts the preferences of most or all of the individuals in the group.
The story behind the Abilene Paradox
Harvey recounted the parable that gave rise to the paradox in the article. On a hot day like today in Coleman, Texas, a husband, wife, and her parents were sitting on the porch, sipping lemonade. The father-in-law suggests driving 53 miles to Abilene to eat at a cafeteria, which the other three agree to despite their reservations.
The trip to Abilene in a car without air conditioning was uncomfortable, and the meal at the cafeteria was also unappealing. The group members complained about their decision to go to Abilene on the way back to Coleman. Despite their initial reservations, the individuals agreed to the plan because they did not want to upset anyone.
Why does the Abilene Paradox occur?
The Abilene paradox arises from a fundamental inability to manage agreement. Each member incorrectly believes that their preferences differ from those of the rest of the group and, as a result, does not raise any objections. This is a significant issue in organisations that have become so adept at managing conflict that the skill of managing agreement has become underdeveloped or absent.
Various aspects of social psychology, such as theories about social conformity and social influence, can explain why people prefer agreement over speaking up. According to these theories, individuals are extremely averse to acting in ways that contradict the prevailing actions of a group.
Symptoms of the Abilene Paradox in an organization
Failure to manage agreements may not appear to be such a bad thing at first glance, but it can have serious consequences for a business.
The six symptoms of the paradox, as described by Harvey, are as follows:
1. Employees agree on the nature of a problem or situation that the organisation is facing. They agree privately, however, without informing others.
2. Employees also agree on the steps that must be taken to correct the problem or situation. Maintaining the status quo by remaining on the porch sipping lemonade in the Abilene parable would have satisfied both individual and group needs. This agreement is also reached in private.
3. Employees fail to communicate their desires and beliefs to one another due to private agreements. As a result, every other member of the group misinterprets the group's collective reality.
4. This misperception then leads to each individual acting against their desires based on inaccurate and invalid information. Employees act in ways that are counterproductive to the organisational purpose, intent, and success in the workplace.
5. Employee frustration and anger result from counterproductive actions, as employees become dissatisfied with the organisation. They form subgroups with trusted acquaintances and direct their complaints toward other subgroups and authority figures.
6. If the ability to manage agreement is lacking, the cycle becomes more intense. In the Abilene parable, the group became aware of the paradox, preventing their problems from worsening.
How to avoid the Abilene Paradox?
Here are three ways to avoid the paradox's negative effects in any organisation:
1. Make a secure environment
If an individual is hesitant to share an opposing viewpoint, they must be encouraged by creating a safe environment for them to do so. A culture of trust, collaboration, and empathy should be fostered, with team leaders leading by example.
2. Actively seek feedback
Oppositional viewpoints must be actively considered by leadership. This aids in the resolution of potential conflicts before they have a chance to destabilise the organisation. It also helps to avoid a situation in which employees become pessimistic about their chances of being heard or seeing change implemented. Diversity of input and opinion, no matter how unpopular or unconventional, is essential.
3. Expect some dissent
It is critical to recognise disagreement as a healthy byproduct of diverse teams. Disagreement is analysed in collaborative organisations in order to enrich and validate the final decision.