Jerry B Harvey’s 1974 article “The Abilene Paradox: The Management of Agreement’, contains this vignette.
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 together they decided to take a trip which none of them wanted. They each would have preferred to sit comfortably at home, but did not admit to it when they still had time to enjoy the afternoon.
This is the author’s example of what happens when we don’t have what he calls a good ‘management of agreement’.
It forms part of a broad group of social/collective assessment of the reality, followed by decision making that is self-influenced. Groupthink, a term created 20 years earlier than Harvey’s Abilene, overlaps with this, of course. And since then, there have been very public Abilenes including Watergate, US attempted invasion of Cuba in the Bay of Pigs and BPs little problems plus many more.
The striking side of this is how, today, we are still all going to Abilene sometimes, when individually we don’t really want to go to Abilene. Although Harvey elaborates on symptoms, causes and prevention, the reality is that we need our management and leadership teams to have people who speak up in public and express their deep desires. Full stop.
As an organizational consultant working with many Boards and Leadership Teams of sorts, I am always restless with perfect agreements and ‘in full alignment’ declarations of mutual love. I ask people, once I have introduced the Abilene Paradox, to at least call lots of time-out and shout: ‘hold on an minute, is this an Abilene moment by any chance? That at least makes them laugh a bit, become more human, and say things such as ‘actually, I am not really sure I agree with …’.
Forget dysfunctionality of teams. We are all humans that need to conform, belong, not disappoint, and reach closure. Ah, closure! Who invented that? Who can be against it, and who is brave enough to say ‘hold on, are we really, really, really sure we want to go to Abilene for dinner’. It’s self inflicted
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