Facilitator Journal | Issue #0487, May 3, 2011
Our article this week The Abilene Paradox: The Management of Agreement is by
Jerry B. Harvey, author of The Abilene Paradox and
Other Meditations on Management.
He use The Abilene Paradox, as a label for the tendency for groups
to embark on excursions that no group member wants, for
reasons which will be clear after reading the article.
Stated simply, when organizations blunder into the Abilene
Paradox, they take actions in contradiction to what they
really want to do and therefore defeat the very purposes
they are trying to achieve. Business theorists typically
believe that managing conflict is one of the greatest challenges
faced by any organization, but as corollary illustrated
by the Abilene Paradox, the inability to manage agreement
may be the major source of organizational dysfunction.
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Abilene Paradox: The Management of Agreement
A case study in repressed
desire and group dynamics.
Group Process Skill
July afternoon in Coleman, Texas (population 5,607), was
particularly hot - 104 degrees according to the Walgreen’s
thermometer. In addition, the wind was blowing fine-grained
topsoil through the house. But the afternoon was still tolerable
potentially enjoyable. A fan was stirring in the air on
the back porch;
there was cold lemonade; and finally, there was entertainment.
Dominoes. Perfect for the conditions. The game requires
little more physical exertion than an occasional mumbled comment, “Shuffle’em,”
and an unhurried movement of the arm to place the tiles
in their appropriate positions on the table. All in all,
it had the makings of an agreeable Sunday afternoon in Coleman.
That is, until my father-in-law suddenly said, “Let’s get
in the car and go to Abilene and have dinner at the cafeteria.”
“What, go to Abilene? Fifty-three miles? In this dust storm
and heat? And in an unairconditioned 1958 Buick?”
my wife chimed in with, “Sounds like a great idea. I’d like
to go. How about you, Jerry?” Since my own preferences were
obviously out of step with the rest, I replied, “Sounds
good to me,” and added, “I just hope your mother wants to
“Of course I want to go,” said my mother-in-law. “I haven’t
been to Abilene in a long time.”
into the car and off to Abilene we went. My predications
were fulfilled. The heat was brutal. Perspiration had cemented
a fine layer of dust to our skin by the time we arrived.
The cafeteria’s food could serve as a first-rate prop in
an antacid commercial.
four hours and 106 miles later, we returned to Coleman,
exhausted. We silently sat in front of the fan for a long
time. Then, to be sociable and to break the silence, I dishonestly
said, “It was a great trip, wasn’t it?”
my mother-in-law said, with some irritation, “Well, to tell
the truth, I really didn’t enjoy it much and would rather
have stayed here. I just went along because the three of
you were so enthusiastic about going. I wouldn’t have gone
if you all hadn’t pressured me into it.”
believe it. “What do you mean you all?” I said. “Don’t put
me in the you’all group. I was delighted to be doing what
we were doing. I didn’t want to go. I only went to satisfy
the rest of you. You’re the culprits.”
wife looked shocked. “Don’t call me a culprit. You and Daddy
and Mama were the ones who wanted to go. I just went along
to keep you happy. I would have had to be crazy to want
to go out in heat like that.”
father entered the conversation with the word: “Shee-it.”
He then expanded on what was already absolutely clear: “Listen,
I never wanted to go to Abilene. I just thought you might
be bored. You visit so seldom I wanted to be sure you enjoyed
it. I would have preferred to play another game of dominoes
and eat the leftovers in the icebox.”
the outburst of recrimination, we all sat back in silence.
Here we were, four reasonably sensible people who – of our
own volition – had just taken a 106-mile trip across a godforsaken
desert in furnace-like heat and a dust storm to eat unpalatable
food at a hole-in-the-wall cafeteria in Abilene, when none
of us had really wanted to go. To be concise, we’d just
done the opposite of what we wanted to do. The whole situation
simply didn’t make sense.
it didn’t make sense at the time. But since that day in
Coleman, I have observed, consulted with, and been a part
of more than one organization that has been caught in the
same situation. As a result, the
organizations have either taken side trips or, occasionally,
terminal “journeys to Abilene,” when Dallas or Houston or
Tokyo was where they really wanted to go. And for most of
those organizations, the negative
consequences of such trips, measured in terms of both human
misery and economic loss, have been much greater than for
our little Abilene group.
call the tendency for groups to embark on excursions that
no group member wants “the Abilene Paradox.” Stated simply,
when organizations blunder into the Abilene Paradox, they
take actions in contradiction to what they really want to
do and therefore defeat the very purposes they are trying
to achieve. Business theorists typically believe that managing
conflict is one of the greatest challenges faced by any
organization, but as corollary the Abilene Paradox illustrates
that the inability to manage agreement may be the major
source of organization dysfunction.
of the Paradox
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." Groups that
fail to manage agreement effectively display six specific
characteristics, all of which were present when my family
went to Abilene:
members individually agree in private (in the parking lot
or at the café or on the phone) about 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 dominoes.
members agree in private about what steps would be required
to cope with the situation or problem. For members of
the Abilene group, “more of the same” was a solution that
would have adequately satisfied individual and collective
members fail to accurately communicate their desires and/or
beliefs to one another. (I didn’t want to say anything
for fear of hurting someone!) In fact, they do just the
opposite, thereby leading one another into misperceiving
the collective reality. (Sending the vision, goal, or objective
into a tail spin!) On the basis of incorrect assumptions
about the consensus, each member of the Abilene group communicated
inaccurate data to the 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.
such invalid and inaccurate information, organization members
make collective decisions that lead them to take actions
contrary to what they want to do, thereby arriving 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.
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.
if organization members do not deal with the generic issue–
the inability to manage agreement – the cycle repeats itself
with greater intensity. Largely because it became conscious
of the process, the Abilene group did not reach that point.
the Abilene Paradox reflects a failure to manage agreement.
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
the Author: This article was written by Jerry B. Harvey,
author of "The Abilene Paradox and Other Meditations
on Management." Lexington Books, 1988.
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