‘Movie Night, Mining and the Abilene Paradox’, a seemingly unusual title to address a frequent household and workplace problem that can be crippling to organisations and individuals.
- “We should watch Home Alone again this Christmas.” I really don’t want to see it again but it is tradition so everyone else will want to…
- “We need to increase production by 10% this month.” I won’t say anything because they are management but surely everyone can see that we can’t reduce capital and operating costs whilst increasing production with no strike length…
- “Let’s take a family trip to Abilene?”…
Figure 1: Abilene Paradox from The Daily Omnivore, 2011
The concept of the Abilene Paradox was developed by Professor Jerry Harvey in 1974 to explain the dysfunction that can be caused by an inability to manage agreement (Harvey, 1974, p. 66). An anecdote is the basis for the name of the paradox, in which Harvey elaborates on an incident that occurs between author, wife and in-laws.
On an extremely hot afternoon the father-in-law postures a trip to a restaurant in the nearby town of Abilene. The author details his unspoken discontent with the idea but after his wife states that it, “sounds like a great idea”, the author also gives his approval. The author’s mother-in-law doesn’t offer any objections and thus the group takes the 4 hour trip to Abilene. Through internal dialogue, the author details a horrible experience; however, to be sociable and break the silence upon returning home, the author pronounces, “It was a great trip, wasn’t it?” This question leads to the realisation that the mother-in-law didn’t enjoy the trip and never wanted to go on the trip, but felt pressured by the other group members to go. The author and wife then highlight their bewilderment, as they also didn’t want to go but didn’t want to, ‘rock the boat’. Finally, the father-in-law declares that he would have much rather of stayed in town and only offered the idea because he thought everyone was bored. After these revelations, the author questions why, when no one actually wanted to go, they had made a trip to Abilene and basically achieved the opposite of what each individual wanted to do (Harvey, 1974, pp. 63-66).
Harvey follows this anecdote with a more detailed explanation of the paradox, in relation to organisations and how they frequently undertake activities in contradiction to what they are hoping to achieve and therefore nullify the original objectives. (1974, p.66) Essentially highlighting that the inability to manage agreement is a major source of organisation dysfunction.
You may be asking how can one spot the Abilene complex running rampant in their organisation? Do you turn up to the same meeting every week, run through the same Agenda, develop no innovative ideas and feel that nothing has been accomplished? Do you often leave this meeting with a monotonous internal dialogue running through your head suggesting that everyone else in your team is insane? Alternatively, the literal studies suggest that the six key symptoms to look out for include (Harvey, 1974, pp. 66-67):
- Individuals in the organisation agree privately as to the nature of the situation/problem.
- Individuals in the organisation agree privately as to the required steps to cope with the situation/problem.
- Individuals fail to communicate their desires/beliefs to one another within the organisation. They convey the opposite desire/belief and lead one another into misperceiving the shared reality.
- The misperceived reality causes the organisation to make a shared decision to take actions contradictive to what they are trying to achieve. The results of the actions are therefore counterproductive to the organisation’s objectives.
- The counterproductive actions result in frustration, anger, irritation and dissatisfaction in the members of the organisation and confrontational subgroups within the organisation are formed.
- Lastly, if the individuals do not deal with this inability to manage agreement, then the cycle repeats itself with greater potency.
The treatment actions for the paradox are in relation to the underlying psychological themes that exist in organisations and their internal bureaucracies, including: Action Anxiety, Negative Fantasies, Real Risk, Separation Anxiety, and the Psychological Reversal of Risk and Certainty. Understanding the logic that forms the basis of an intrinsically illogical concept allows coping/treatment mechanisms to be established (Harvey, 1974, p. 70).
As the paradox is caused by group collusion, Harvey established that the key treatment action requires an individual to confront the issue in a group setting (1974, p. 78). Every person deals with confrontation in a different way. A solution to the paradoxical problem after the initial confrontation generally occurs quickly, however, convincing an individual to confront the issue can be time-consuming. If walking into a meeting and giving everyone a piece of your mind doesn’t exactly get you motor going, there is always the option of the ‘Genuine Inquirer’. “Who, what, when, where and how”. The Genuine Inquirer uses authenticity and understanding to empower and guide the team to a group conversation and a deeper awareness of the issues being examined.
Harvey, Novicevic, Buckley and Halbesleven suggest that it is an especially difficult process to alter an organisation’s culture, however, if the Abilene Paradox is in existence then it must be systematically challenged (2004, p. 221). This issue is having a severe effect on so many facets of our lives and needs to be a topic that individuals are educated about. Organisations can only benefit from employees becoming aware of the symptoms and treatment actions for the paradox. The phrase, ‘herd behaviour’, can be used to describe the Abilene paradox, as individuals make decisions that ignore their own preferences because of unwritten rules and traditions (McAvoy, J. & Butler, T. 2007, p. 556). However, if the herd is unable to manage agreement on the best course of action then organisations and individuals will suffer.
Are you going to watch Home Alone again this year and sit through more meetings with unspecific agendas and unrealistic outcomes? Try something different and ‘agree’ that a new direction is required.
Harvey, J. B. (1974). The Abilene Paradox: The Management of Agreement. Organizational Dynamics, 3(1), 63-80. Retrieved from http://ac.els-cdn.com.ezp01.library.qut.edu.au/0090261674900059/1-s2.0-0090261674900059-main.pdf?_tid=179791cc-19a5-11e7-ad53-00000aacb35d&acdnat=1491358431_5f87ac094a87acf65d72d8c157eb3268
Harvey, M., Novicevic, M., Buckley, R. and Halbesleven, J. (2004). The Abilene Paradox After Thirty Years: A Global Perspective. Organizational Dynamics, 33(2), 215-226. Retrieved from http://ac.els-cdn.com.ezp01.library.qut.edu.au/S0090261604000178/1-s2.0-S0090261604000178-main.pdf?_tid=5925d8f6-1cd9-11e7-8ad9-00000aab0f01&acdnat=1491710728_c0567c95232759c3f8e16facf3b37095
McAvoy, J. and Butler, T. (2007). The impact of the Abilene Paradox on double-loop learning in an agile team. Information and Software Technology. 49, 552–563. Retrieved from http://ac.els-cdn.com.ezp01.library.qut.edu.au/S0950584907000146/1-s2.0-S0950584907000146-main.pdf?_tid=7df09c94-1cd8-11e7-9e96-00000aacb360&acdnat=1491710361_6c6f2ada20c52dcb03496c4fb3c7a3e0
The Daily Omnivore. (2011). The Abilene Paradox [Image]. Retrieved April 11, 2017, from http://beforeitsnews.com/mediadrop/uploads/2013/39/563d517d1f4a3f54d6f7712a2cfb6959e755e385.jpg