The Abilene Paradox was first observed and explained by Dr. Jerry Harvey of George Washington University in his article “The Abilene Paradox and other Meditations on Management” in 1974. The paradox is a fable that he developed from some real-life experience. The fable explains how people reach an agreement or rather, how they think they have reached an agreement.
Dr. Harvey’s fable goes like this:
“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. 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.”
This is a very typical situation that is faced in most organizations. Dr. Harvey points out to six characteristics that arise when a group fails to manage agreement:
• Members in a group agree privately with each other. All of them at Coleman knew that they wanted to stay where they were.
• They also know, privately, what to do about each situation. Everyone in Coleman knew what was the best way to spend a hot dusty day.
• Members fail to communicate their wishes to each other, or worse still, they communicate the exact opposite of what they wish.
• They make decisions based on this miscommunication which leads to inappropriate action. None of them wanted to go to Abilene.
• This causes frustration and dissatisfaction. The blame game then begins.
• If this mismanaged agreement is not understood by the members, this process is bound to repeat.
Dr. Harvey states that the main source of this paradox occurring in organizations is the belief that any action is better than no action. People proceed to decide without complete information. Fear of the unknown keeps them from venturing out and asking questions. The first step to break this cycle is to observe this cycle as it occurs. Based on the observation agreement skills can be practiced. Reaching an agreement and consensus is thus, not the same as voting.