Abilene Paradox (Part 2)–
Where and how the bug thrives
Madan Tripathy

Welcome back! Here we meet again. I am sure you have gone through my first post in the series “Abilene Paradox – Be Aware of the BUG that plagues us every now & then”. If not, please go through the same first. Here is the link


Trust many of us have been thinking about numerous incidents in our lives – both personal as well as professional - where we have fallen prey to the bug of Abilene Paradox. Being aware of it is a good beginning. Fifty percent of the battle is won. But, what is required is to understand its root causes, the breeding grounds of the bug, sine-qua-non for any insulation mechanism.

Successful people have been able to know it and kept the bug away from their lives, home and workplaces. If others can do it, so can we. Let’s discover.

Why do people do what they do?

At the cost of repetition, what we discussed in the earlier post in essence is that there are situations in which a group of people collectively decide upon a course of action, despite it being against the individual preference of all or most members of the group; which is called Abilene Paradox.

It is intriguing to ponder why people get succumbed to Abilene Paradox? The reasons are many, but most of them are pretty obvious, not far to seek.

The reason why otherwise sensible and reasonable people behave in such irrational ways (They may think rationally, but they don’t voice their thoughts) are many – some directly related to the culture of the organization, some attributable to the leadership and of course some point to the individuals themselves and many more are a blend or combination of some of them.

• Social Acceptability – Man is a social animal and he is conditioned for socially acceptable behavior. Because of such conditioning, our own independent opinions are sometimes throttled and we accept what we presume is the opinion of masses. It sometimes happens that group members form an opinion, albeit wrongly, about what most members of the group feel. It is a daunting task to voice your opinion in a group if you have a presumption that your opinion is contrary to views of all others on a certain course of action or proposal. Even if you finally muster the courage to voice your opinion against supposed to be the view of the majority, you do the same so reluctantly that it does not cut any ice. Research also shows that if the people having a dissenting view are in minority, majority having a different view get irritated, show their disapproval both in words and actions and blame the minority for not falling in line. As such, as an individual, you may be absolutely right to be reluctant to speak when you have a feeling that you have the lone voice without any support; but it is definitely not in the best interest of the organization.

As my colleague Ms. Mugdha Shah puts it in her inimitable style in Hindi
“Upar upar se tu kisise sahamat mat ho,
Wohi bol jo tera apna sahi mat ho,
Sathi wah hai jo bas sidhi aur sachi baat kahe,
Upar upar ke chakar mein, pair ke niche ki zammeen mat kho.”

(Do not agree with anyone just for satisfying somebody. Always mention only your true opinion. Friend is he who always acts straight-forward and tells the reality. Do not contribute to the downfall by contributing to false agreement)

• Organisation Culture of Conflict Avoidance – There are organisations where there is compulsive obsession for avoiding disagreements and conflicts. As such, no wonder, the people are discouraged or even scared of speaking up their divergent views. This is in spite of the fact that said views could have been appropriate for the organization. People don’t dare to break the tradition. They follow the simple principle -”Silence is Bliss.” It is not that the people do not have the capacity for rational thinking. The only point is that they are reluctant to voice their thought. The point in question is whether in the organization, constructive criticism is encouraged or looked down upon as dissent not worthy of a team player.

• Hierarchical Organisations – Abilene Paradox can very easily thrive in strong, hierarchical organisations, where obedience to direction from top is paramount and unquestionable and dissenting voice is considered as disloyal or in-subordination (e.g.- military organization).
I would like to quote Upton Sinclair, “It is difficult to get a man understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

• Organisational Sacred Cows – If people have a feeling that that any project or initiative or product or business line, is a pet endeavor of leadership at the top and close to their heart, people tend to avoid any difference in views. People are scared of being vociferous about their opinions, particularly when the leadership is rigid and not open to views of the subordinates, even if justified. It is quite understandable that in such situations, people prefer to go with the flow.

• HiPPO – Many a times, decisions are taken simply on the basis of HiPPO (Highest Paid Person’s Opinion). HiPPO, a term which generally is referred in business analysis & research, not so much in either HR or Organisational Psychology, refers to the tendency of people to go by the opinion of the senior-level decision maker in the discussion, without any thought or analysis – especially when the opinion of the senior is based on his intuition or gut feel rather than on hard data or empirical research. In defense of HiPPO, I may mention that HiPPO is not all that bad and may be necessary or the best step forward in certain situations. There may be situations & times when the senior-most participant has to exercise his authority to take or even impose a decision to break an impasse (even if the decision may not be the best one, but is definitely better than no decision at all).

As such, the situation, timing and the context are really important factors to be taken into consideration and it can’t have a general application in the interest of the organisation. The closest terminology I can think of in behavioural psychology is the tendency of the people to follow the Path of Least Resistance.

• The Anecdote of the Path of Least Resistance

I recall this anecdote which I read in my college days. A retired Government Officer found in his dinner a curry made out of brinjal, which he found awfully bad. Being annoyed, he summoned for the cook. The cook came & stood before him with folded hands. Thus went the conversation between the two.

Retired Officer – What is this item Mr. Cook?
Cook – This is a curry made out of brinjal, Sir.
Retired Officer – Brinjal curry is not tasty.
Cook – Yes Sir, you are right.
Retired Officer – Brinjal is not a good vegetable.
Cook – You are right Sir.
Retired Officer – Brinjal is bad for health, as it is allergic.
Cook – You are absolutely right Sir.
Retired Officer – So, from tomorrow onwards, you will not cook brinjal curry again. Is that understood?
Cook – Yes Sir.

Fortunately or unfortunately, the story did not end there. Six months later, the retired officer attended a marriage party, where brinjal curry was served. He liked the taste very much, may be because the curry was very well prepared, or may be simply because he has not tasted brinjal for last six months. Immediately after coming back home, he summoned the cook, who came as usual with folded hands and thus goes the conversation.

Retired Officer – Today I had the opportunity of tasting brinjal curry in a marriage party. I find brinjal curry is very delicious.
Cook – Yes Sir, it is.
Retired Officer – Brinjal is a good vegetable; it is good for health as it contains minerals & vitamins.
Cook – You are right Sir.
Retired Officer – Brinjal is high in fibre & low in carbohydrates. It controls blood pressure and lowers cholesterol.
Cook – You are absolutely right Sir.
Retired Officer – You must have brinjal preparation in my menu at least on alternate days.
Cook – Yes Sir, as you please.

The cook was about to leave, when the officer recalled his earlier conversations with the cook six months back. He reminded the cook about the same and sought an explanation what made the cook change his opinion about brinjal in a span of six months. The cook replied a one liner with all humility – “Sir, I am not serving under brinjal.” The officer understood the implication and had a hearty laugh.

Trust the message is conveyed.

• Participants not feeling safe to speak up – Abilene Paradox is frequently faced by organisations when the participants do not feel safe to speak up. This could arise for different reasons, inclusive of the reasons mentioned above. This also includes fear of being ridiculed for having a contrary opinion, fear of ostracize or ban from the peers or fear of being branded as a spoilsport, being socially un-acceptable.

People who had negative experiences earlier for speaking up what they considered just and reasonable, learn their lessons hard to simply keep their mouth shot. They then decide not to open their mouth even when their opinions are actively solicited, as they harbor the belief that it isn’t worth it to say anything.

• Lack of trust of the group members in the leadership compounds the problem. If the people have a feeling that the leadership do not have the conviction or even intention to listen to their concerns, it not only delegates tasks but also the blame for failed initiatives, no one feels confident of pointing out or even thinking an independent line of action to avoid responsibility. In such an environment, backstabbing and blame-shifting amongst peers thrive. Safest course obviously is to go with the flow.

• Feeling of Hesitancy – There are also hesitations among the team members because of their own failure in doing their own home-wok well by re-evaluating previously rejected alternatives and reasons thereof, searching out and compiling relevant information, analyzing the risks of preferred choices, working out contingency plans, evaluating objectives & all alternatives in a scientific manner. In such a situation, they seem to be more concerned about what other group members will feel about them and tend to go with their own feeling of the group’s views in the matter.

• Lack of interaction of team members amongst themselves also contribute for thriving of Abilene Paradox.

• Action Anxiety – Prof Harvey has very beautifully summarized and mentions Action Anxiety as one of the most important factor contributing to Abilene Paradox. Participants become intensely anxious thinking about acting in accordance with what they believe needs to be done and ultimately take actions in contradiction to their understanding of the problem. As a result of action anxiety, decision makers may decide to pursue unworkable research projects or participate in illegal activities to avoid such anxiety. Action Anxiety, as mentioned by Prof Harvey, arises because of the three reasons – (i) Negative fantasies that members have about acting in accordance with their own understanding of what is sensible viz;- loss of face, prestige, position etc. (ii) Real Risk – As we can’t predict the outcomes of the actions we undertake and there is a possibility of the consequence of any action undertaken being worse than the evils of the present, sometimes decision makers may decide to take a trip to Abilene rather than run the risk of ending up somewhere even worse. (iii) Fear of participants being ridiculed or ostracized for voicing a different opinion, which they believe is contrary to the opinion of other group members. Rational thinking is throttled in this case.

I love this from _Ayn Rand - “If we have an endless number of individual minds who are weak, meek, submissive and impotent – who renounce their creative supremacy for the sake of the “whole” and accept humbly the ‘whole’s verdict’ – we don’t get a collective super-brain. We get only the weak, meek, submissive and impotent collection of minds.”

With this, I have come to the end of Abilene Paradox – Part 2. It was good that you read the first part making you aware of the paradox, it is better that you understood the breeding grounds where the bug of the Abiilene Paradox is ticking like a time bomb in the second part of the series, it will be a Must & Best that you join with me in the third part to debug your life, before it bites you again!
Wait for my third and final post in this series. I promise you it will not be a long wait.
So Long Good Bye

Author's Bio: 

Hi! I am Madan Tripathy, presentlyemployed as Vice President, HR & Business Excellence in Rallis India Limited(A TATA Enterprise). Have worked successfully as Vice President, HR & Adminin NELCO Ltd. (A Tata Enterprise) and Head, HR in Global Wind Power Ltd (AReliance ADA Group Company). Starting myprofessional career as Management Trainee in Steel Authority of India Limitedand subsequently working at different levels in Steel Authority Of India Ltd.,Rourkela Steel Plant, I have more than 34 years of rich & varied experiencein all areas of Human Resources with blend of experience of working in bothPublic & Private Sectors of repute. My experience in HR is varied anddiversified having worked in organizations at different stages of lifecycle viz;- start up, stable, growing & developing and also organizations growingthrough business restructuring.

I am a Doctorate inManagement from Capitol University and M.B.A. in HR. My other qualificationsinclude Post Graduation Degrees in Physics and Public Administration and aDegree in Law.

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

Have conducted research onsubjects of Behavioral Psychology like Emotional Intelligence, StressManagement, Burnout Stress Syndrome and Rust out Stress Syndrome.

Have the privilege ofSuccessful 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 LeadershipAward in 2013 by Asia Pacific HRM Congress. Under my leadership in HR, RallisIndia Ltd. has been conferred with Significance Achievement in HR Excellence in2014 by Confederation of Indian Industries. Conferred with the “100 MostTalented Global HR Leaders” award by CHRO-Asia in World HRD Congress in Feb,2015.

I have a publication of morethan 20 Articles on different facets of Management published in ManagementJournals of repute. I have also half a dozen articles published inwebsites. .