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The Abilene Paradox: Explained

Psychology Oct 30, 2021

“There is a lot of pretending going on. Everyone believes everyone else is better off than they are, and so everyone acts as though they are better off than they are. Everyone ends up spending more than they should because we are all comparing ourselves to the spectre of false ideals. It’s the Abilene paradox. Everyone regresses to a false mean, thinking that others have logic behind their conviction.” - Issue 44


When Group Dynamics Clash: The Abilene Paradox

When your team, company, or project comes to a halt, what do you do? It's easy to become frustrated and stuck with the people in your life. However, it's sometimes more productive to take a step back and consider what's going on in their heads.

This review will explore the Abilene Paradox, a group situation where individuals are unhappy with an option but feel justified in voting for it because everyone else did. We will share examples of how to recognize this dynamic in action and then provide some ideas about what you can do if it occurs.

First, we need to take a step back and understand why the Abilene Paradox exists.

What is Abilene Paradox?

The Abilene Paradox occurs when a group makes a decision that goes against the wishes of its individual members. Because people don't want to "rock the boat" or "be a killjoy," the Abilene Paradox occurs.

Jerry B. Harvey, Professor Emeritus of Management at George Washington University, introduced the Abilene Paradox in a management journal article. It happens because people are naturally afraid of offending a group and want to fit in. According to Harvey, the paradox may be caused by people believing they will be judged if they ‘speak up. Of course, if no one speaks up, the group will decide against their wishes.

Unlike groupthink, the Abilene Paradox occurs when individual members of the group feel the overall decision is poor. To optimize group dynamics, efficient groups must overcome groupthink and the Abilene Paradox.

The paradox is named after an anecdote that happened in West Texas: On a hot summer day, several families were driving along on their way to go swimming at the only public pool within 100 miles of town. However, when they arrived at the pool they all said, “It’s so crowded. Let’s go to my house and swim in the pool instead.” Even though everyone would have been happier if they had stayed home, none of them wanted to be viewed as selfish by not going along with what their friends wanted to do--even when that was exactly what they wanted to do.

This story is a perfect example of how the Abilene Paradox can happen: We may all secretly want something different from what we are doing but no one wants to stand out and be seen as difficult. So, even though we know that everyone would prefer to do something else, we decide to go with the group instead because it seems fairer



How does this dynamic happen in the workplace?

This can occur when people are unhappy with a decision or outcome but do not want to go against what everyone else wants because they see it as being unfair if only one person is different from the rest of their team members. So, even though there might be an option that would make everyone happy, they end up doing something that no one truly wants because it seems like the more fair option.

Unfortunately, this can lead to long-term problems in a team of people who do not feel heard and respected for their individual needs. In fact, when you consider how many teams experience conflict--and then try to resolve those conflicts--you might realize how common this dynamic is.

Which decisions would be best for everyone? In every situation, we should speak up and let our voices be heard so that no matter what decision gets made, as long as it's well-informed and fair, we'll move forward together towards success.

Reasons Why We Don’t Speak Up

  • Emotions: Fear, ignorance, and laziness are all emotions that may prevent us from speaking up. If the rest of the team is nervous about something but doesn't say anything, this is your chance to speak up.
  • Fear of being wrong: If you are afraid of being ridiculed or ignored if you express your views, you are more likely to keep quiet. But your silence isn't helping the team solve the problem.
  • Fear of rejection: This is a very common fear that prevents many people from speaking in front of others, especially when making team decisions or discussing difficult topics. Dissent can be scary because it can cause conflict and awkwardness among team members, but if no one speaks up, no one will have an opinion and the team will be unable to collaborate.
  • Fear of success: They are afraid of being seen as egotistical or a braggart. Fearing that their opinion will be dismissed if it appears too good to be true in front of more seasoned members, they may choose to remain silent instead.
  • Laziness: Sometimes we choose silence because we don't want to take on additional responsibilities or work if our opinion is taken into account by the group. This silence does not help anyone it makes things more difficult because the work must be redone.
  • Ego: Some people are afraid to speak up because they believe their viewpoint will not be heard or considered by the group. Rather than risk embarrassment in front of others, they choose to remain silent and hope that others will support them.
  • Groupthink: Sometimes we don't speak up because we think the rest of the group already knows better than we do, so our opinions are irrelevant. This is called groupthink, and it leads to everyone making bad decisions because no one knows what they're doing.
  • Refusal: Sometimes we don't speak up because we think everyone else already agrees. We may not want to upset the group or be seen as discordant. We may fear that speaking up will make us look bad or even cause the team to dislike each other! That being said, no one knows what everyone else thinks until they express their opinion.
  • Postponement: Some people are afraid to speak up because they lack time or resources. You may be reluctant to express your views if doing so disrupts someone else's work or personal life.
  • Fear of failure: Some people choose not to speak up because they are afraid of failing the group. Silence can lead to feelings of shame, guilt, or regret, and it doesn't help anyone when no one knows what's going on.
  • Fear of conflict: People who expect to face conflict when expressing their views or ideas often choose not to do so. If you're afraid to speak up, the team won't know what you think, which could lead to a bad decision.
  • Approval: Sometimes people choose not to speak up because they want everyone's approval or to get along well, even if it means keeping quiet. This happens more often in teams that have been working together for a long time.

So, what can you do about it? If it seems like a group situation could lead to the Abilene Paradox occurring in your team, here are some steps that will help:

  • Encourage open communication so everyone feels heard and respected. For example, taking a break and going outside for some fresh air or going to an empty conference room where people can speak freely without fear of repercussions.
  • Design better team-building exercises that include everyone's perspectives, rather than focusing on one personality type. While some may be more vocal than others, everyone should feel comfortable sharing their ideas and feedback.
  • Avoid creating an environment where there is only one way to do things and anyone who disagrees is seen as difficult or problematic.
  • If the Abilene Paradox occurs, you can always hold a group meeting to discuss it and see if anyone feels their individual needs were not met. Then you can decide what works best for your team moving forward.

Conclusion

It is because of social influence and conformity pressures that groups frequently make decisions that are less favourable than decisions made by individuals acting alone in a given situation. Individual preferences may lead to greater overall satisfaction in some circumstances, but this is unlikely (i.e., not having fun with friends). When applied inappropriately or inconsistently, both types of decision-making behaviours can result in poor outcomes; as a result, it is critical for group members involved in making decisions about how to best spend their time together to understand what makes for a better decision-making process.

The implication is to avoid this paradoxical situation and a trip to Abilene. Say ‘NO'. Teamwork doesn't mean muting or suppressing your own voice. If you lead a team, find out how your team members feel about your decision. You may not realize that your decision or plan is flawed. This parable teaches us valuable lessons that we can apply in both our professional and personal lives.


Useful Resources

The Abilene Paradox was referenced in newsletter Issue #44

44: What you feel in your bones
A note from my journal on conviction and mimesis I wasn’t going to write a newsletter this week, and then my morning journal turned into a 1000+ word essay. So I’m going to publish it in its entirety. Seriously, I just hit copy/paste right out of my

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