The Abilene Paradox: Saying 'Yes' When No One Wants To

Have you ever gone out for food with a group, fought over where you would eat, then once you're there nobody is happy with the final decision? We've probably all been in these situations and they don't make sense! Why would a group of people ever go forward with plan that no one in the group thought was a good idea? The answer: The Abilene Paradox.

This communication theory, named after a city in Texas, describes odd phenomenon as a breakdown of communication when of a group of people decides upon a course of action that many or all of the group members are actually against. But why?! It sounds nuts, yet it happens.  The answer lies hidden in the perplexing power of social pressure. The Abilene Paradox exists because everyone in a group is be too worried about being viewed as a dissenting and minority opinion in the group. More simply put, nobody wants to rock the boat.  

The follies of the group dining decision is just one of many examples of how this paradox can leave everyone unsatisfied, frustrated, or even in financial or legal trouble. Arguably the worst, and most public example in U.S. history of The Abilene Paradox wreaking havoc is considered to be the Watergate Scandal in the 1970s. Research after the event has revealed that many of the people involved were not comfortable with the cover-up, but no one objected because they wanted to be seen as a team player.  In hindsight, I’m sure some of them wish they had spoken up.

We can see the Abilene Paradox at work in the workplace as well. For example a board of executives grasping for new revenue generators can decide to invest in a new project in which no one feels confident. Additionally, an office might throw a holiday party because it's viewed as something they're supposed to do even though no one there actually wants the party. On a smaller scale, we have probably all been in meetings that end with action items that don't seemed to be tied to any real objectives. And of course meetings just for the sake of meetings are a common culprit and time waster.  

Here's the good news: there are many ways to avoid the Abilene Paradox.  It can be as simple as a group taking the time to check in at the end of a discussion and ask if everyone is satisfied with the outcome.  However, at times that is easier said than done, due to tensions in the room or simply that some people aren’t as comfortable voicing their opinion in front of a crowd.  The graphic below shows three ways to help reduce the occurrence of this paradox, known as Teach, Talk, & Watch.

Make your voice heard. Be the type of person that says "hey, maybe staff meetings at 4:30pm on Friday aren't the best idea" or "singing the birthday song doesn't have to be mandatory."  It's likely you'll end up being somewhat of a hero with more people in agreement than originally let on.  

Levi Baer

Chicago, IL