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How to identify groupthink: An introduction to the Abilene Paradox

How often do bad decisions get followed up on in your organization? How often to you, or other colleagues waste valuable time and effort on projects that everyone knew was doomed from the start? Well, if you think that this is something only your organization takes part in then take heart in the knowledge that behavior like this isn’t just a hazard of your workplace, but such a common practice in all organizations that it has a name: the Abilene Paradox.

Intro to the Paradox

The Abilene Paradox was coined by Jerry B. Harvey, Professor Emeritus of Management at The George Washington University and author of “The Abilene Paradox and Other Meditations on Management.” The Paradox is explained using a parable of a family who ends up making an uncomfortable trip that none of them wanted to:

On a hot afternoon visiting in Coleman, Texas, the family is comfortably playing dominoes on a porch, until the father-in-law suggests that they take a trip to Abilene [53 miles north] for dinner. The wife says, “Sounds like a great idea.” The husband, despite having reservations because the drive is long and hot, thinks that his preferences must be out-of-step with the group and says, “Sounds good to me. I just hope your mother wants to go.” The mother-in-law then says, “Of course I want to go. I haven’t been to Abilene in a long time.”

The drive is hot, dusty, and long. When they arrive at the cafeteria, the food is as bad as the drive. They arrive back home four hours later, exhausted.

One of them dishonestly says, “It was a great trip, wasn’t it?” The mother-in-law says that, actually, she would rather have stayed home, but went along since the other three were so enthusiastic. The husband says, “I wasn’t delighted to be doing what we were doing. I only went to satisfy the rest of you.” The wife says, “I just went along to keep you happy. I would have had to be crazy to want to go out in the heat like that.” The father-in-law then says that he only suggested it because he thought the others might be bored.

The group sits back, perplexed that they together decided to take a trip which none of them wanted. They each would have preferred to sit comfortably, but did not admit to it when they still had time to enjoy the afternoon.

Elements of the Paradox

According to Harvey, the issue that leads to the Abilene Paradox is an inability to manage agreement, not conflict. The following symptoms are said to exist in organizations that tend to fall for the paradox:

Symptoms of the Paradox that you can look out for

When your organization makes decisions, do you find the same dysfunctional activities repeated over and over? If so, you want to be on the look out for the paradox and find a way to cut it off before it causes more damage. If you want to identify the paradox at work within your group, we’ve compiled the following list to look out for:

So we’ve discovered the paradox- now what?

This week we’ll be posting some remedies to the paradox here on our blog, as well as within our weekly newsletter. In the meantime, what do you do within your organization to combat groupthing and the Abilene Paradox?

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