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The Abilene Paradox – The paradox of doom – Prof. Sriram Prabhakar

28 Nov, 2022.

On my birthday a couple of years back, I wanted to take my family out for dinner. I asked my wife where we can go. Knowing that I like Indian food, she immediately said: “Let’s go to Rajdhani – The Thali Restaurant.”
My son and daughter both nodded in agreement. On return my son said: “I wish Pappa had taken us to Mainland China – he loves Chinese food.” “Or at least to Copper Chimney for the wonderful Punjabi food” added my daughter. “Yes, I too would have loved to go Mainland China”, I said.
My wife looked surprised: “But didn’t we all unanimously agree to go to Rajdhani” she asked. I said sheepishly “I didn’t want you to feel bad.” And both my children nodded in agreement. Here were four people who of their own volition would not have gone to ‘Rajdhani – The Thali Restaurant’, but collectively agreed to go there.
This also happens in the corporate world. This is the Abilene Paradox. Prof. Jerry Harvey, Professor Emeritus of Management at The George Washington University, in an article on the subject calls it “The Inability to Manage Agreement”.

Abilene Paradox occurs when a group of people collectively decide on a course of action that is contrary to the preferences of many of the individuals in the group.
Prof. Harvey states in his paper ‘The Abilene Paradox’: “Organizations frequently take actions in contradiction to what they really want to do and therefore defeat the very purpose they are trying to achieve”. This is the inability to manage agreement.
He adds: “The inability to manage agreement, not the inability to manage conflict, is the essential symptom that defines organizations caught in the web of the Abilene Paradox.”
In the corporate world, when the top boss throws an idea, the group immediately agrees. This is because everyone in the group thinks he would look stupid if he disagrees. Standing out as a lone voice is very embarrassing. This leads the group to decide on ‘yes’ when ‘no’ would have been the personal (and the correct) response of the majority.
Ayn Rand in one of her books says “If we have an endless number of individual minds who are weak, meek, submissive and impotent – who renounce their creative supremacy for the sake of the “whole” and accept humbly the ‘whole’s verdict’ – we don’t get a collective super-brain. We get only the weak, meek, submissive and impotent collective mind.”

  1. Organization members agree privately, as individuals, as to the nature of the situation or problem facing the organization. For example, members of the Abilene group agreed that they were enjoying themselves sitting in front of the fan, sipping lemonade, and playing cards.
  2. Organization members agree privately, as individuals, as to the steps that would be required to cope with the situation or problem they face. For members of the Abilene group “more of the same” was a solution that would have adequately satisfied their individual and collective desires.
  3. Organization members fail to accurately communicate their desires and/or beliefs to one another. In fact, they do just the opposite and thereby lead one another into misperceiving the collective reality. Each member of the Abilene group, for example, communicated inaccurate data to other members of the organization. The data, in effect, said, “Yeah, it’s a great idea. Let’s go to Abilene, ” when in reality members of the organization individually and collectively preferred to stay in Coleman.
  4. With such invalid and inaccurate information, organization members make collective decisions that lead them to take actions contrary to what they want to do, and thereby arrive at results that are counterproductive to the organization’s intent and purposes. Thus, the Abilene group went to Abilene when it preferred to do something else.
  5. As a result of taking actions that are counterproductive, organization members experience frustration, anger, irritation, and dissatisfaction with their organization. Consequently, they form subgroups with trusted acquaintances and blame other subgroups for the organization’s dilemma. Frequently, they also blame authority figures and one another. Such phenomena were illustrated in the Abilene group by the “culprit” argument that occurred when we had returned to the comfort of the fan.
  6. Finally, if organization members do not deal with the generic issue — the inability to manage agreement —the cycle repeats itself with greater intensity. The Abilene group, for a variety of reasons, the most important of which was that it became conscious of the process, did not reach that point.
    To repeat, the Abilene Paradox reflects a failure to manage agreement. In fact, it is my contention that the inability to cope with (manage) agreement, rather than the inability to cope with (manage) conflict, is the single most pressing issue of modern organizations.
    There are several reasons why we don’t speak up; Some of them are
    • Fear of being socially unacceptable or being the ‘spoilsport’.
    • Tendency to go with the herd.
    • Lack of capacity to analyse a situation, consider its pros and cons, and tendency to blindly follow.
    • Where our jobs are at stake, we are apprehensive of being vociferous about our opinions. Moreover, this behaviour is understandable where the hierarchy above are stringent and rigid and not open to the subordinates’ opinions.
    • Passive behaviour and lack of interaction between the team members, often leads to taking a trip to Abilene.
    • Fear of breaking traditions or something which has become a convention, though all of us personally feel, that it is a hindrance, we end up following it.
    • The inference we can draw here is to avoid falling prey to this paradoxical situation and making a trip to Abilene. Learn to say ‘NO’. Teamwork doesn’t imply toning down or killing your individual voice completely. If you’re a leader of any team, make sure you know what your team members feel about your decision. It might not occur to you that the decision is wrong, or the implementation of something is not practical. This parable gives a wise teaching that we can learn from, and implement it in our professional as well as personal life.


  • Conflict Management
  • Team Building
  • Group Dynamics

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