Abilene Paradox - Why Do We Say Yes When We Mean No
The Abilene Paradox - the Bandwagon Effect
Why do we often say Yes when we really want to say No? It is a paradox that Jerry Harvey explored in his book, "The Abilene Paradox." The following is a synopsis of that paradox and why I believe it exists.
Picture a hot and humid Sunday on a July afternoon in the small town of Coleman, Texas. The temperature is 104 degrees - in the shade. A mother, father, their married daughter and son-in-law are sitting on the outdoor porch playing dominoes.
The father suddenly exclaims, "Why don't we all get in the car and drive to Abilene and have dinner in the cafeteria there?" The son-kn-law thinks to himself, "Abilene? That's 53 miles away in this dust and heat and the car air conditioner isn't working as it should."
But his wife, the daughter, chimes in, "That sounds like a great idea. How about you, dear?" she asks her husband. Since his preferences are obviously out of step with the others, he slowly responds, "Sounds OK to me, but does your mother want to go?" He is hoping she will say No. The mother-in-l.aw replies, "Why not, I haven't been to Abilene in a long time."
So they all pile into the old Buick and off they go to Abilene. It is brutally hot, the wind is blowing stifling hot air full of dust and the air conditioning is faulty. They arrive in Abilene after an hour and a half uncomfortable ride.
The cafeteria food is filling but nothing to write home about. Three hours and 106 hot miles later, the family is back in Coleman, sweating and exhausted.
The son-in-law says, sarcastically, "Great trip, wasn't it?"
His mother-in-law replies, “To tell you the truth, I really didn’t enjoy it that much and would have liked to stay home. I just went along because the three of you were so enthusiastic about going. You all pressured me into it.”
The son-in-law couldn’t believe what he heard. “What do you mean, ‘you all?’ I didn’t want to go; I only went to satisfy the rest of you.”
His wife looked shocked. “Hey, I just went along to keep the rest of you happy. You three were the ones who wanted to go.”
father entered the conversation. “Well, I never really wanted to go to
Abilene. I just thought you all might
want to go; that you were bored just playing dominoes here. I would have preferred to stay home and eat
the leftovers in the icebox.” (outdated term for refrigerator).
They all sat back in silence. Here they were, four reasonably sensible, intelligent people, who of their own volition had just taken a 106-mile trip across a godforsaken desert in furnace-like heat and a dust storm to eat unpalatable food at a hole in the wall cafeteria in Abilene, and none of them had really wanted to go in the first place. In fact, they had done the opposite of what they really wanted to do.
The Abilene Paradox involves the "management of agreement."
The above example took place in a family. But organizations occasionally take these terminal journeys to Abilene, too. The tendency for groups or teams to embark on excursions that no team member really wants is called the Abilene Paradox. The team members take actions in contradiction to what they really want to do and therefore defeat the very purposes they are trying to achieve.
Organizational theorists believe that managing conflict is one of the greatest challenges faced by any organization, but the Abilene Paradox states that the major source of dysfunction is the inability to manage agreement.
Here is a typical example in a business situation. The president of a small industrial company hires a consultant to help discover the reasons for the poor profits of the company, and the low morale and productivity of the employees. The consultant talks to the President, the VP for Research and Development, and the Research Manager privately and separately. Each one describes a sizable research project as an idea that looked great on paper but will ultimately fail for a number of reasons. Each individual also indicates that he has not told the others about his reservations.
The President tells the consultant that he can’t reveal his true feelings because abandoning this widely publicized project would make the company look bad in the press. The VP for Research says he can’t let the others know of his reservations because he would probably get fired for insubordination if he questioned the project. The Research Manager says he can’t let the President or the VP know of his doubts because of their extreme commitment to the project.
In meetings with each other, they all try to maintain an optimistic facade so the others won’t be worried by the project. The Research Manager even goes so far as to write ambiguous progress reports so the President and VP can interpret them to suit themselves. In a subsequent meeting, praises are heaped on the project and a unanimous decision is made to continue it for another year. The organization has boarded the bus to Abilene.
Succinctly, the Abilene Paradox is stated as follows: Organizations frequently take actions in contradiction to the data they have for dealing with problems, and as a result, compound their problems rather than solving them. Why?
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First Reason - Action Anxiety
Members of an organization take actions in contradiction to their understanding of the problem because thinking about acting in accordance with what they believe needs to be done makes them intensely anxious. As a result of action anxiety, decision makers may decide to pursue unworkable research projects or participate in illegal activities to avoid such anxiety. Why does this action anxiety occur?
Because of the next three reasons:
Second reason - Negative Fantasies
Team members have negative fantasies about what would happen if they act in accordance with what they believe needs to be done. They foresee loss of face, prestige, position, etc. if they confront the issues. Action anxiety may be caused by negative fantasies that members have about acting in accordance with their understanding of what is sensible. They also provide a psychological excuse that releases them from the responsibility of having to act.
Third reason - Real Risk
We do not know nor can we predict the outcomes of the actions we undertake. All actions have consequences and they may be worse than the evils of the present. Decision makers may decide to take their organization to Abilene rather than run the risk of ending up somewhere even worse.
Fourth reason - Fear of Separation
Ostracism is one of the most powerful punishments that can be devised. We have a fundamental need to be connected, engaged, related and not to be separated nor alone. The fear of taking risks that may result in our separation from others is at the core of the Abilene Paradox. It leads research committees to fund projects that none of its members want, and may lead White House staff members to engage in illegal activities (think Watergate) that they don’t really individually support.
Those who want to be effective leaders would do well to remember these two insightful quotes:
"Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things." - Peter Drucker
"Management is efficiency in climbing the ladder of success; leadership determines whether the ladder is leaning against the right wall." - Stephen Covey
And I must add my own personal caveat: " When humor goes, there goes civilization." - Erma Bombeck
Copyright BJ Rakow Ph.D. 2010, 2011. All rights reserved Author, Much of What You Know about Job Search Just Ain't So.
Readers of my book say it enabled them to write a dynamic resume and cover letter, network effectively, interview professionally, and negotiate assertively. Includes a must-read chapter for older workers.