The Abilene Paradox is a concept that refers to a situation in which a group of people collectively decide on a course of action that is counter to the preferences of many or all of the individuals in the group. The term was first coined by Jerry B. Harvey in his 1974 paper “The Abilene Paradox: The Management of Agreement.”
The concept of the Abilene Paradox is based on a story that Harvey shared in his paper, in which a family from Abilene, Texas, went on a trip to a town of the same name, even though none of them wanted to go. They went along with the idea because they assumed that the others wanted to go, and they didn’t want to disappoint or offend anyone. The result was that everyone had a terrible time and regretted going, even though they had all agreed to it.
The Abilene Paradox highlights the importance of clear communication and a willingness to express one’s own preferences and opinions in group decision-making. When individuals in a group feel that they cannot express their true opinions, they may go along with a decision that they do not agree with, leading to dissatisfaction and poor outcomes.
The concept is relevant to organizations and businesses, where the Abilene Paradox can manifest in the form of decisions that are not in line with the preferences and goals of the organization or its members. The concept is also relevant to social groups, where the Abilene Paradox can manifest in the form of decisions that are not in line with the preferences and goals of the group’s members.
A team leader can take steps to avoid the Abilene Paradox by:
- Appointing a devil’s advocate on the team to argue against a decision
- Asking each member of the team to list out what they perceive to be the top choices of others on the team and a separate ranked list of their OWN top choices. This approach can help each team member to distinguish their own preferences from those that they perceive others to have.
- Asking each member of the team to justify in writing why they support a given decision
- “The Abilene Paradox: The Management of Agreement” by Jerry B. Harvey