The Abilene Paradox

The term “Abilene Paradox” was made famous by Dr Jerry B Harvey, a Professor of Management Science at the Washington University, who lectures on organisational behaviour. It describes the story (supposedly true) of a personal experience with the town of Abilene, during one of his lectures in 1974.

Below is an extract from the Workplace Bullying Institute:

Abilene is the Texas city in the Abilene paradox. It refers to the retelling by Harvey of a lousy decision by his family. On a hot summer day, the family piled into a car without airconditioning and drove too many to Abilene to try a new diner. The heat was oppressive; the food was lousy. But no one dared to speak in those terms until later that night back home. Finally, the matriarch of the family broke the silence by complaining about the food. Then everyone chimed in with their complaint–the car was hot, it was stupid to try an unknown restaurant. It turns out that no one wanted to go in the first place, but no one said so when it mattered. Eventually, they all blamed the father for suggesting the drive.

Further information regarding the Abilene Paradox can be found in Association of Research Librarians.

This is a strange phenomenon that happens all the time in organisations, when nobody voices out what he feels is not right – simply because he doesn’t want to stand out. It wouldn’t be so funny if the majority had actually thought it was right – except that in the case of the team that has gone to Abilene, the majority actually has the opposite views. And we lose out on a lot of dynamism because of that.

Many company boards or political parties are in Abilene because of this phenomenon. The independent directors, valued for their independence, do not speak up because they do not wish to alienate the other directors and because they do not want to look foolish. The cadres, the base and supporters of the party, do not speak up because they do not wish to lose their connections to the main political players and because they do not want to look like they are not toeing the party line.

Interestingly, the Abilene Paradox occurs in many cases because everybody, in the absence of any dissenting views, presumes and creates an atmosphere of assent when actually everybody might actually disapprove. I have seen this happens often in meetings with groups of customers, where the atmosphere rapidly changes from one of consent and cordiality, to one of dissent and anger, just because a single customer was brave (or foolhardy) enough to speak his mind. One company I know of avoid bringing their customers together in groups because of this reason. It is almost like a reverse Abilene Paradox.

Similar but not exactly the same is the strange behaviour in Shanghai towards crime. Unlike in Singapore, nobody here dares to confront the pickpockets that operate with impunity in the buses and trains. Everybody fears being attacked by a gang if he confronts, and so they live in fear of their belongings. Unfortunately, the Abilene Paradox here proves to be true many times. Even if someone is crazy enough to step out and confront, none of the onlookers support and help out.

No wonder then, that the Chinese were oppressed by outside powers for nearly two centuries. It’s precisely because everybody thought of themselves and not of the organisation, that China took such a long time to become strong. The overseas Chinese had no choice but to unite against the racism faced when they were overseas, and this bond of unity became a tradition among the widespread diaspora (we’ve even got Chinese in Israel and South Africa!).

So, are any of our organisations in Abilene now?

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