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The Abilene Paradox

How is agreement ever a problem?

The term, Abilene Paradox was coined by professor and management thinker Jerry. B Harvey in his famous article “The Abilene Paradox: The management of agreement” It is highly influenced by conformity (a social influence that involves a change in one’s thoughts or behavior in order to fit in with a group).The name of the paradox comes from a gripping narrative which was presented in his article.

It was a scorching summer afternoon when the family decides to take an exhausting trip to Abilene for dinner. Everyone despite of being unwilling to take the trip, thinks that their preferences will be different from the rest of the group and hence agrees to take the trip to Abilene, a place 50 miles away from home. When addressed later, the family realized that they were all on a trip which none of them wanted.

The Abilene Paradox occurs when a group of people agree to take actions to conform to each other in contradiction to what they actually want as individuals. Here agreement becomes a problem because it is used when people try to disguise their true opinions and beliefs leading to some serious miscommunication. It occurs mainly because their perceptions of other members’ feelings are incorrect. In such situations, people tend to mask or hide their true feelings believing that it is different from the rest of the group. It occurs due to poor communication and lack of grit.

Thus conscience doth make cowards of us all” quoted in Shakespeare’s Hamlet really adheres to this paradox. A person’s fear and conscience prevents them from speaking up the truth or doing what is right.

Pretty weird, isn’t it? People taking actions contradiction to what they think is best, due to the fear of suffering the arrows of opposing the majority. This only magnifies their problems instead of solving it simply because they were unwilling to share their thoughts and ideas with each other.

So why do we take actions in contradiction to what we think is best?

  • Action anxiety- we may be anxious about what action to choose because it requires us to make a decision whether to do what we believe is best or to do what the group believes is best.
  • We often find ourselves contemplating the worst outcome that is likely to occur if we decide to act upon what we think is best. It is crucial for decision making but sometimes we overplay the negative outcomes thus giving us excuses for inaction.
  • Fear of facing rejection and the consequences of standing out from the rest of the group.

Psychological concepts associated with The Abilene Paradox

The Abilene Paradox is greatly influenced by the concept of group dynamics in social psychology. It is explained through the theories of social conformity (the act of matching attitudes and behaviors to that of the group), groupthink (group of people desiring for harmony within the group), social influence and the bystander effect (individuals are often less likely to offer help or take an initiative when other people are present).

The outcome of this paradox can result in the failure of tasks that have great potential.

 How can we avoid taking that trip to Abilene?

The Abilene Paradox is more of an inability to manage agreement than conflict because the group of people take actions different to what they really want as individuals and end up defeating the purpose they all set out to achieve. Hence it can be avoided by-

  • Communicating your true feelings and opinions openly in a group without fearing the outcomes of it.
  • Paying attention to the non-verbal cues and facial expressions that might show disagreement.
  •  Critically evaluating the real risks through a realistic approach.
  • Creating room for disagreement.

The Abilene Paradox is also a roadblock to successful teamwork.

A successful teamwork requires-

  • Creating comfort and trust among team members. When members of a group are comfortable with each other, they uncover their skills and pitch in new ideas without the fear of mere judgement or rejection.
  • Effective communication which involves voicing your opinions, constantly updating each other, providing honest feedback and never making assumptions about what the group thinks is best.
  • Effective listening- when it comes to communication we always focus on communicating our views, but effective listening is the key to a healthy communication. This enables a mutual understanding between members of a group.
  • Delegation of responsibilities. It is understanding the strengths and weaknesses of every team member thus stimulating maximal productivity.
  • Team collaboration– It will lead to equal participation and contribution of members within a group. It will help team members to learn from each other, brainstorm new ideas and find solutions.
  • A practical and a realistic approach– An action always has its consequences and having a realistic approach helps you to determine what those consequences could be. It helps you to make sound decisions, analyze the risks and plan for the worst outcome.

Conclusion

It is amusing when you think about how often this phenomenon occurs around us right from making plans with our friends to taking important business decisions in corporations. People find themselves on a trip to Abilene even when nobody wants to go.

In short, none of them can be blamed for the outcome of the trip to Abilene because everyone is equally responsible for the miscommunication and unwillingness to share their belief. Also quite strange because you wouldn’t think of something as simple as being in agreement with the group as such a problem but paradoxes are statements that run contradictory to one’s expectations and logic.

It is all based on whether we can break the logic, have faith in our own beliefs and have the courage to go against the majority. That is truly when a community or teamwork can flourish.

References

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/0090261674900059?via%3Dihub

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abilene_paradox

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Groupthink

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conformity

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bystander_effect

https://www.writework.com/essay/explained-quote-hamlet-thus-conscience-does-make-cowards-u

https://www.deakinco.com/media-centre/news/the-five-elements-of-successful-teamwork

What do you think?

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Written by Fiona Gladstone

A second year Art Student pursuing to major in Psychology. My long term goal is to be a practitioner doctorate with both clinical and research knowledge in psychology. Passionate about creating mental health awareness and to help people with the necessary means to reach out for help

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Aanchal Sharma

Abilene Paradox is a phenomenon that describes a situation in which a group makes a collective decision that does not correspond to the feeling and thoughts of the individuals in the group.
You have explained it very well.
Keep it up..