"Organizations frequently take action contrary to the desires of their members, and thereby defeat the very purpose they set out to achieve." --Dr. Jerry B. Harvey
The Abilene paradox is a paradox in which a group of people collectively decide on a course of action that is counter to the preferences of any of the individuals in the group. It involves a common breakdown of group communication in which each member mistakenly believes that their own preferences are counter to the group's and, therefore, does not raise objections. A common phrase relating to the Abilene paradox is a desire to not "rock the boat".
The Abilene paradox was introduced by management expert Jerry B. Harvey in his article The Abilene Paradox and other Meditations on Management. The name of the phenomenon comes from an anecdote in the article which Harvey uses to elucidate the paradox:
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.
The phenomenon may be a form of groupthink. It is easily explained by social psychology theories of social conformity and social influence which suggest that human beings are often very averse to acting contrary to the trend of the group. Likewise, it can be observed in psychology that indirect cues and hidden motives often lie behind peoples' statements and acts, frequently because social disincentives discourage individuals from openly voicing their feelings or pursuing their desires.
The Abilene Paradox is related to the concept of groupthink in that both theories appear to explain the observed behavior of groups in social contexts. The crux of the theory is that groups have just as many problems managing their agreements as they do their disagreements. This observation rings true among many researchers in the social sciences and tends to reinforce other theories of individual and group behavior.
Applications of the theory
The theory is often used to help explain extremely poor business decisions, especially notions of the superiority of "rule by committee." A technique mentioned in the study and/or training of management, as well as practical guidance by consultants, is that group members, when the time comes for a group to make decisions, should ask each other, "Are we going to Abilene?" to determine whether their decision is legitimately desired by the group's members or merely a result of this kind of groupthink. This anecdote was also made into a short film for management education.
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