The Importance of Being Real – The Abilene Paradox

The Importance of Being Real – The Abilene Paradox




It is a scorching, dusty July day in Coleman, Texas. Four people are waiting out the heat, sipping lemonade in the shade of a farmhouse porch. At one point, someone indicates they excursion to Abilene, 53 miles away, to have a bite in a cafeteria there. The others think it’s a crazy idea, but they say nothing and go along. They excursion all the way to Abilene in a non-air-conditioned car by a dust storm, have a average meal and excursion back to Coleman hours later, tired, hot and unhappy.

When they return home, they show that they didn’t want to go in the first place but did because they thought the others were eager for the excursion. Of course, this gap in communication was someone else’s fault.

Here we have the Abilene Paradox, a occurrence of group dynamics first identified by Jerry Harvey of George Washington University in 1974. The paradox is that people go along with a bad decision, knowing complete well that it was a bad decision in the first place. The consequence is the complete opposite of what was intended at the outset: half-baked sustain, uninspired ideas, and wasted time and money on results that fall short of expectations.

On The Road To Abilene

We’ve all experienced the Abilene Paradox, especially in decision-making meetings. We struggle to make a decision, come to an agreement only to find, in our heart of hearts, that we did so only because of what we assumed about the desires and opinions of others.

If you’ve said to yourself in those situations, “Who cares; it’ll be okay at all event we decide,” or “Guess I’ll go with the flow,” you are on your way to Abilene. We assume the others really do want to go to Abilene, already though we don’t, but we agree to go anyway. And, if each individual has the same misguided assumptions, then the action is something that no one wants. We agree as a group, but as individuals, we have regrets. One can say this is an ridiculous situation.

Why do people truly sustain things that go against what they desire? What happened to the outspoken individual with ideas to contribute and concepts to roll around in? A scarce bird in groups.

According to Harvey, in group settings, expressing your real beliefs creates some degree of anxiety. Should you continue your own integrity and self-worth by speaking your mind, or do you compromise your values and go with what you think is the consensus?

The anxiety comes from the magical belief that something disastrous will happen to you if you do show your real thoughts. “Oh, I’ll get fired if I do that. I’ll get labeled a maverick. I’ll look like a fool. I’ll be unlikable.” Since you believe those things will happen if you speak your true mind, you wind up not being honest about what you really think. These magical consequences provide an excuse for being quiet.

And what do those magical and negative consequences represent? Alienation, separation, ostracism; these are powerful, inner fears, so powerful that we will act against our own interest to avoid the risk of not being “part” of something. Of course, doing so winds you up in Abilene.

When Compromise Becomes Unhealthy, You Are Heading Down the Road

But isn’t compromise part of work life? Don’t we go against our own interests when we agree to go along? In her new book, The Compromise Trap, Elizabeth Doty draws a line between healthy compromise that is necessary for accomplishing goals and unhealthy compromises that betray beliefs and values. When unhealthy compromises pile up, the conflict inside your head can cause stress and many trips to Abilene (in addition as the very alienation, separation or ostracism you feared in the first place!).

Her approach is to recognize when you are pressured to play by rules that undermine your beliefs and/or shared sense, and play a different game by being true to yourself, no matter how difficult the circumstances. The meaningful to playing this different game is to question your assumptions. Is this decision really in the group’s interest? Are others committed to this or just feeling pressed to go along? What are the costs to me if I go along, including the costs to my self-respect and others’ ability to trust me? And finally, will I really get fired, ostracized, or marginalized if I focus on helping the group reach its goals?

In her book, Elizabeth shows numerous examples of professionals who questioned their assumptions and discovered the consequences of speaking up were not as bad as they first appeared, at the minimum not in comparison to dust and heat of Abilene.

So, how do you know your team is on the road to Abilene? Here are some indicators:

Soft and ambiguous language. Is vagueness and opacity on the agenda versus clear and descriptive words? Vagueness leads to low comprehension that leads to uncertainty about how to react. Collateralized Debt Obligations, anyone?

Missed opportunities. Do people come out of meetings saying something like, “What I really wanted to say was…?” We individually and privately have a completely different opinion than the one we expressed in the team.

No fun. Are meetings are formal, serious, procedural and slightly intimidating? Is there any room at all for spontaneity of expression?

Authority plays. Beware the authority figure who subtlety deflects ideas, inserts his/her own preferences, and uses forceful language to press home points with no repartee from the group.

Looking for a scapegoat. We were all in on the crummy decision; we are all to blame. Under those circumstances, it’s not a good sign to be placing blame. That’s a sign you’ve been to and maybe are nevertheless in Abilene.

Low involvement. Are there people in the meeting who do not contribute? Why?

Low questioning and probing. What’s the ratio of question asking to contributing ideas?

Awareness of course of action. Do people realize they are producing agreements that no one really wants?

The point is that you need to step in with your true point of view, at all event it is. To get people to listen, be diplomatic, choose your words carefully and back up your thoughts with logic and data. People won’t listen to ideas being forced on them.

We Visit Abilene Too Often

Unfortunately, the Abilene Paradox plays itself out in real life situations where ersatz decision-making has harsh consequences. One well-publicized example was the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961. Here is what a CIA officer wrote about the final stages of the decision-making course of action.

“It is hard to believe in retrospect that the president and his advisers felt the plans for a large-extent, complicated military operation that had been current for more than a year could be reworked in four days and nevertheless offer a high likelihood of success. It is equally amazing that we in the agency agreed so freely.”

For more information about the Abilene Paradox, see The Abilene Paradox and Other Meditations On Management by Jerry Harvey. For more on unhealthy compromises, see The Compromise Trap by Elizabeth Doty.




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