During a meeting called to discuss a new project, the CEO of an organisation asked the participants whether they had volunteered for the meeting or were invited (read, instructed). Almost all of them said that they had volunteered when, in fact, they were ‘invited’ to it. Given a choice, none of them would have attended the meeting as each one of them had his own misgivings about the viability of the project. They felt that it is better to go with the flow and so attended the meeting as if they were guided by an invisible force.
In a professional WhatsApp group, when the boss posts something unpleasant or irrelevant, the other members while opposing the post individually, tolerate it for fear of being isolated or “left out”. They feel that airing their individual views would be tantamount to sacrilege!
This phenomenon, called the ‘Abilene paradox’ occurs when a group of people collectively, albeit reluctantly, decide on a course of action that is contrary to reality and their individual beliefs. Jerry Harvey, a management expert introduced the term in 1974 in his article titled “The Abilene Paradox: The Management of Agreement”. The name of the phenomenon comes from an anecdote that Harvey used in the article to explain the paradox.
On a hot afternoon in Coleman, Texas, the Harvey family is playing a game, until the father-in-law suggests that they take a trip to Abilene, a good 85 miles from Coleman, for dinner. The wife says, “Sounds like a great idea.” The husband, despite having second thoughts about the trip since the drive would be long and hot, thinks that his opinion would be out of sync with the group and fearing that he may be dubbed a “party pooper”, says, “Sounds fine to me. I just hope your mother wants to go.” The mother-in-law then says, “Of course. I am dying to go as I haven’t gone to Abilene since ages.” When they arrive at the cafeteria after a long and dusty drive, the food is as bad as the drive. They reach home four hours later fully exhausted by the drive.
One of them sheepishly says, “It was a great trip, wasn’t it?” The mother-in-law says that, actually, she would rather have preferred to stay home but went with the others since the others were excited. The husband says, “I wasn’t happy doing what we were doing. I accompanied you to satisfy all of you.” The wife says, “I just went along to keep you happy. I would be mad to go out in the heat like that.” The father-in-law then says that he only suggested it because he thought the others were bored and so thought he was doing something nice. The group is perplexed that they collectively decided to go to Abilene when none of them individually wanted to go. They would have preferred to relax at home but did not express it when they still had time to enjoy the afternoon.
The Abilene Paradox happens wherever there are groups of people – in military, politics, business, academics and elsewhere. It manifests more in organizations, especially in the world of business and management. It happens when a few members of the group, when making decisions, decide to go with the rest even when they do not agree with them. The Abilene Paradox highlights group dynamics in organizations. It states how groups influence the behavior and thinking of employees. In fact, groups are so powerful that they can suppress or stifle opinions of the employees.
While Harvey and his family suffered only a minor inconvenience, in an organization, the manifestation of this paradox can harm its larger interests and cause huge financial losses. Normally, in meetings, even without the boss being present, employees take decisions that may be counterproductive to the group’s goal because nobody wants to be accused of “rocking the boat”. They don’t want to stand up and express their views out of “separation anxiety” -- anxiety arising out of fear of being separated and ostracized by the rest of the group. They feel that expressing their views fearlessly may cost them their job or identity.
Herd behavior in an organization can smother creativity and innovation. The paradox underlines the fact that organisations not only have problems managing disagreements, but that agreements themselves may be a problem in a poorly functioning group.
The paradox plays out in stock markets also when investors blindly buy a ‘hot stock’ based on recommendations of brokers or friends, though individually they know that the fundamentals of the company do not warrant a ‘buy’ decision.
The paradox can, however, be avoided if the group creates an environment that recognizes the dangers of conformity and allows for the expression of ideas, and gives people the power to express their ideas without any threat to their jobs or identity.
(The writer is a CFA, a former banker and currently teaches at Manipal Academy of Banking)