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Abilene Paradox - Managing Agreement Still a Challenge?

In 1974, Dr. Jerry B. Harvey, now Professor Emeritus at George Washington University, described how a failed family outing to Abilene, Texas symbolized a common challenge, the challenge not of managing conflict, but of managing agreement. In his timeless article, Dr. Harvey described:

  • symptoms of organizations caught in the paradox
  • how they occur in a variety of organizations
  • underlying causes
  • some implications of accepting this model for describing organizational behaviour
  • how to cope with the paradox
  • how the paradox relates to a broader existential issue.

He suggests "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."

Individuals go along with the crowd he suggests because of:

  • Action Anxiety - anxiety about acting in accordance with what they believe needs to be done
  • Negative Fantasies - fantasies about what will happen by doing what one believes needs to be done
  • Real Risk - likelihood of being ostracized, punished, or fired
  • Separation Anxiety - fear of separation, alienation, and loneliness
  • Psychological Reversal of Risk and Certainty - confusing fantasized risk with real risk and fail to take action with some risk, transforming the outcome we fear into a certainty

In his stories of situations in organizations and at home, we can easily see ourselves and wonder when faced with situations that cry for us to stand up, will we have the courage to face our fantasized risks and fears to assert our beliefs of what is right and swim against the tide.

Here is a link to the full article from 1974 at the Legacy Tobacco Document Library at the University of California, San Fransisco:

The Tobacco Document Library contains "over 14 million documents created by major tobacco companies related to their advertising, manufacturing, marketing, sales, and scientific research activities."

If you'd like to get the book:

Here is a trailer for a video by CRM Learning:

I wrote to Dr. Harvey to share my gratitude for his work and offer some additions to the paradox. He kindly replied with interest and encouragement to expand the ideas and write an article. The rest of this article presents a first draft of those ideas.

I suggested there could be variations beyond "no one individual" in his original article, which I share with a wink and a benevolent smile:

Abilene Hijacking - the group goes along with a bad idea of one person in the group who happens to be the most vocal or emotional. We say the person has a strong personality. Individuals shrug, sigh, and go along with the bad idea just avoid dealing with the person.  Of course, the more the person learns that that's what it takes to get their way, they continue doing it. Why would the person change? It's working!

Abilene Dictatorship - the group goes along with a bad idea of the boss, the person who actually holds positional power. Individual are so fearful that they go along with the decision and suffer in silence, which I call the silence of the lambs. The group defaults to some variation of, "[shrug] What the boss wants, the boss gets." The boss might even gather the group to "collaborate and consult" with them, but the outcome might have been decided before the meeting... People attend the meetings and say very little, or say something and then give up.

Abilene Cry Wolf - One person in the group speaks up, crying, "Wolf!" against the impending doom of the dubiously dumb decision, but the group ignores the individual in favour of their own trip down the Road to Abilene. The less liked the crier is, the faster the group gets to some variation of, "Yeah, whatever. We're going to Abilene!"

To taking our work seriously and ourselves... not so seriously.

To having forgiveness for others... and for ourselves.

To your and OUR success!

Craig Senior

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