The Abilene Paradox is a parable
used to describe the difficulty in managing agreement
in an organization.
The Abilene Paradox is the subject of a book by Dr. Jerry B. Harvey
, a psychologist who studies this and other difficulties in management, and is based on personal experience of a day with his in-laws.
The story begins with a family sitting inside a fan-cooled room, in a house in Coleman, Texas. The family is playing dominoes
and everyone is in a pretty
Outside, the dust is blowing on a outrageously hot summer day, the mercury hitting around 104 degrees with no sign of abating.
Everyone is sipping on some nice cold lemonade
, as the last round finishes up. At this point, Harvey's father-in-law pipes up "Why don't we all drive down to Abilene
, and eat at the cafeteria down there?"
Harvey thinks to himself, "In this heat? In an old Buick
with no air conditioning? In the middle of a duststorm?"
Then his wife says, "Sounds good. Let's go"
So Harvey says, "Sounds good to me if your mother wants to go"
The mother-in-law says "Sure I want to go, I haven't been to Abilene in a long time."
So everyone piles into the noisy old buick and proceed to have a pretty rotten time getting covered in dust and sweat, driving 50-some miles to Abilene, having sub-par food in a old diner, and driving back, four hours later.
Harvey, trying to be sociable
and light, says "It was a great trip wasn't it?"
Everyone is quiet
Eventually, the mother-in-law says "To be honest, I would have rather stayed here. I only went because you three wanted to go."
Harvey says "I was having fun here, I didn't want to go. I would have been delighted to stay"
His wife exclaims "Don't blame it on me. You, dad and mom wanted to go"
Then the father-in-law confesses "Hell, I never wanted to go in the first place. I thought you were probably bored and I was just trying to spice things up. I would have rather stayed and played another round of dominoes and ate leftovers."
Jerry Harvey writes in his book "The Abilene Paradox
& Other Meditations on Management":
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 wanted to go. To be concise, we'd done just the opposite of what we wanted to do.
The paradox occurs when people are hesitant to share their true beliefs
and or feelings about a subject publicly, and instead go along with a bad idea because they are waiting for another to disagree with the idea, and in deferring that conclusion for another to make, they lose the chance to steer the group back on track.
The story is paraphrased from memory and a small outline I made in a corporate training manual on how to work within teams from a video that many have probably seen if they work in a typical office job (and I pulled some details from the web). If you are interested in the story as it was originally told by Dr. Harvey, check out the book I mentioned above. -k.