Abilene Paradox –
Be Aware of the Bug that plagues us every now and then

Madan Tripathy

My experience with the Paradox –

Let me start with a real life example. I & my wife visited a friend’s residential apartment on a Sunday afternoon, who has very recently moved to our locality with his family. We went up in the lift to the 18th floor apartment and rang the door-bell. Though Bhabiji (my friend’s wife) and closely followed by others greeted us with smile, but somehow I felt that the warmth was missing. But, what surprised me most was all of them had assembled in the living room. After the initial “how are you”, “how is everything”, “how are children doing” rituals, there was suddenly a sturdy silence. I am acquainted with the family for years, but have never seen them so depressed, and that too all of them together. I guessed this silence is the silence after the storm. I had to break the ice. “Did we disturb you people? Was there any serious discussion?” - I enquired. “Can we be of any help?”- quipped my wife.

Mausaji (my friend’s dad) was the first to react. “What a lousy place? How sensible people like us could make such a mistake?” - he lamented. “What is wrong about the place? Looks absolutely fine to me.”- commented my wife. Barely she had finished when Mausiji (my friend’s mother) got up and ushered us to the Balcony without speaking a word. There was a sudden gush of air accompanied with a pungent smell. I looked ahead and could locate the source of the pungent smell – the main drain few yards away. The moment we came back to the living room again, Chintu (My friend’s son) started –“That’s not all uncle. My bedroom is privy to free music, the whistling of local trains every now and then.” Bhaviji, as if reluctantly, complained that she has to walk at least two kilometers even to bring a matchbox or a kg of potato. It went on & on such as architectural issues, poor quality fittings in the toilets, colour of the floor tile, door opening to a particular direction not confirming to Vastu etc, everybody having some grievances or other about the place. My wife, in all fairness, was looking at them with enquiring eyes – “ If really there are so many issues, why did they move here at all?” I knew instantly - Abilene Paradox has taken its toll.

Just to confirm, I enquired whether the decision to purchase this apartment was a decision taken on consensus or individually taken by Sujit (my friend), the earning member of the family and imposed on others. Chintu immediately reacted, as usually happens with adolescents of his age – “Consensus! What are you talking uncle? For all of them, I am still a kid. After everybody said YES, YES, YES, my opinion was asked & I had to say yes, though I could visualize that I will be the most fortunate person to have the free music of the passing trains. Others also joined in and mentioned their part of the story and it was quite clear that some of the drawbacks, if not all, were in fact visualised individually while inspecting the apartment before deciding to purchase. But, none of them really mentioned the same emphatically and everyone thought that all others had liked the apartment. Even Sujit mentioned quite sheepishly – “Though I was not enthusiastic at all, I agreed as a matter of respect for my dad’s opinion. I know Mom has a craze for high-rise.” Mausaji shot back immediately – “Don’t blame me. When did I say to purchase this apartment? I only suggested this for our consideration”. It was quite clear that though it was thought of as a collective decision, but none has really favoured it, though not mentioned explicitly.

Discussion was becoming unpleasant. Somehow I could convince them that it is past & already history, which can’t be undone and we should think of what should be done now & successfully postponed the discussion for some time at least. I am sure the family will sell this apartment & purchase another, of course, in the process incurring some financial loss.

Does this incident strike a chord? Is this incident a lone incident of its category? The answer is NO. Such incidents are all pervasive & not infrequent. What is the crux of the issue? Here there are five sensible people of a family taking a decision on consensus, which is contrary to the individual opinions of everybody. Nobody has expressed his individual opinion publicly & accepted the decision, thinking as if it is the opinion of rest in the family, though the fact is just the opposite.

This, in essence, is called Abilene Paradox. When we look back, we can relate many situations in our daily life when we have fallen victim to Abilene Paradox, albeit unknowingly – like eating joints nobody wanted to go to but visited collectively, trips no one wanted to take but took nevertheless as a group, going on picnic to a spot which no one really liked individually and even a television or a set of living room furnitures that no one really liked but purchased nevertheless. Trust it sounds familiar now. I am sure, many real life stories of this nature will come to the mind of the readers. And why not, we all have been in such a situation, more or less only being a matter of degree, only to later blame others or even self-blame, repent and fume for not speaking up, not voicing our thoughts and opinions.

Abilene Paradox in Organisations

This also happens in the corporate world, and in fact in all walks of life. In organisations, frequently new proposals, new projects, new initiatives, initiatives for change are discussed in group meetings or committees. Abilene paradox refers to a situation when a group of people collectively decide a course of action without any member of the group voicing dissent or challenging the so-called collective decision of the group. It is not that every individual group member is really convinced about the correctness of the decision. But, the fact is individual group members mistakenly think that other members of the group hold different beliefs than they do, so they prefer to sail with the group by exhibiting the "Don't Rock the Boat" mentality. Many individual team members stay quiet as they do not have the courage, conviction or confidence (even if not scared) for making their views public, for whatever reasons. Silence definitely does not mean wholehearted agreement in this case. Thus, there is a false sense of consensus in the group. With such a false sense of consensus, organisations many a times take actions in contradiction to what they really want to do and in the process defeating the very purpose they are trying to achieve. This symbolises how agreement can be more dangerous than conflict. It does not require an Einsteinian brain to understand the result of going ahead with such decisions based on false beliefs & pseudo consensus. When the final result is counter-productive, when the problems are compounded instead of being solved, the very same people lament for not voicing their concerns in time or not taking into consideration the real views of all group members. But alas! Now it has gone out of hand.

With due respect for Prof Harvey, the expert who discovered the bug

The credit for identifying Abilene Paradox goes to management expert Jerry B. Harvey, who introduced The Abilene Paradox in his article of the same name. The scene is the family of four made a 106 miles trip from Texas to Abilene & back across the desert in a non-air conditioned car in the scorching heat through a cloud-like dust storm, had a not-so-great lunch and came back. It was only after returning home —hot, tired, and cranky —that the group moaned and complained that the decision was wrong. They discovered and confessed that no one had really wanted to go. But each had assumed that the others did, and so had acted against his or her better judgment, not wanting to go against the will of others. Even the originator of idea mentioned that he simply suggested it because he thought others might have been bored.

Why would four sensible people collectively agree to take a trip that appealed to none of them? Why do workplaces or other organizations embark on ill-advised endeavors when group members, if polled anonymously, would individually agree that the endeavor is not worth the time, money & effort, foolish, dangerous, illegal, or any combination of the above? That is what the Abilene Paradox is all about. Prof Jerry Harvey also calls it a Trip to Abilene.
Essential Ingredients –

So, in my view, Abilene Paradox has the following ten essential ingredients: -

• Members of the Group or Organisation individually understand the nature of the situation or problems faced by the Organisation.
• Individual opinions of the members (which are unknown to each other) are broadly in agreement with one another with regard to steps or actions required to be taken to cope with the situation or problem.
• Individual members fail to publicly & accurately communicate their beliefs and/or desires to one another and keep the things to themselves.
• On the contrary, individual members acquiesce (consent without protest) each other & lead each other into misperceiving collective agreement, which is contrary to the opinion of individual team members.
• With such invalid and inaccurate information based on pseudo-consensus, group members embark on a course of action or activity that no individual team member wants in reality.
• No wonder, the efforts of group members in implementation are bound to be passive and half-hearted; the decision per-se having no buying in, thereby designed to be doomed.
• As such, results arrived at contradicts the very intent or purpose the group wanted to achieve or it compounds the problems rather than solving it.
• As a result of contradictory results, the members experience frustration, anger, irritation and disappointment. Consequently, members resort to blaming other individuals or a sub-group of individuals or implementing team or authority figures for the failure.
• This is a case of Organisational dysfunction through agreement, rather than conflict, viewed from organizational psychology point of view.
• Finally, if the organisation fails to satisfactorily deal with the basic issue of managing agreements, the cycle tends to repeat itself with greater intensity.

“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.”, says Prof. Jerry Harvey.

What Next?

Congratulations! You have taken the first step towards making your life bug free, by Being Aware. Well, as you must have understood, one of the major reason why the bug of Abilene paradox plagues us every now and then is the fact we are not aware of it before it strikes and at the time when it strikes. The realisation comes only after the victim is beaten by the bug and successfully sucked out the juice of rational thinking from our mind. In other words, the first step to save ourselves from the bug is to BE AWARE OF IT. It is better to be doubly sure whenever we get or offer the red carpet of Consensus based Agreements from or to anyone in our daily lives. The bug thrives under such carpets. It is prudent to vaccum clean the carpet with conscious awareness and courageous self- expressions regularly.

Is that All? No. This is just the beginning. Being Aware of a danger is just the first step towards protecting oneself from it. This post is about that. The second step will be to understand the root causes of the problem, the breeding hub of the bug. I will address this step in my next post in this series. This will be essential to prepare ourselves to take the third and final step to uproot the problem, disinfecting your relations with people to be bug free and healthier. I will be catering to this requirement in my third article as the final one in this series.

See you in my next article. Come prepared with enhanced awareness to join me in discovering the breeding places of the bug.


Author's Bio: 

Hi! I am Madan Tripathy, presently employed as Vice President, HR & Business Excellence in Rallis India Limited(A TATA Enterprise). Have worked successfully as Vice President, HR & Admin in NELCO Ltd. (A Tata Enterprise) and Head, HR in Global Wind Power Ltd (A Reliance ADA Group Company). Starting my professional career as Management Trainee in Steel Authority of India Limited and subsequently working at different levels in Steel Authority Of India Ltd.,Rourkela Steel Plant, I have more than 34 years of rich & varied experience in all areas of Human Resources with blend of experience of working in both Public & Private Sectors of repute. My experience in HR is varied and diversified having worked in organizations at different stages of life cycle viz;- start up, stable, growing & developing and also organizations growing through business restructuring.

I am a Doctorate in Management from Capitol University and M.B.A. in HR. My other qualifications include Post Graduation Degrees in Physics and Public Administration and a Degree in Law.

Acted as a visiting faculty on HR, IR and Behavioral Sciences in different institutes apart from conducting in-house Leadership & Management Development Programs.

Have conducted research on subjects of Behavioral Psychology like Emotional Intelligence, Stress Management, Burnout Stress Syndrome and Rust out Stress Syndrome.

Have the privilege of Successful completion of training of six weeks in “HRD SKILLS AND TECHNIQUES”at BROOKFIELD MANOR MANAGEMENT TRAINING CENTER IN U.K. and in BRITISH STEEL,SCUNTHORPE WORKS IN U.K.

Conferred with HR Leadership Award in 2013 by Asia Pacific HRM Congress. Under my leadership in HR, Rallis India Ltd. has been conferred with Significance Achievement in HR Excellence in 2014 by Confederation of Indian Industries. Conferred with the “100 Most Talented Global HR Leaders” award by CHRO-Asia in World HRD Congress in Feb,2015.

I have a publication of more than 20 Articles on different facets of Management published in Management Journals of repute. I have also half a dozen articles published in websites. .