The Abilene Paradox
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 Gujarati food, she immediately said: “Let’s go to Agashiye – The Terrace 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 Shere-E-Punjab for the wonderful tandoori chicken” 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 Agashiye” 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 ‘Agashiye – The Terrace Restaurant, but collectively agreed to go there.
This also happens in the corporate world. This is the Abilene Paradox. Prof. Jerry Harvey 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.
I love this from Ayn Rand: “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.”