What is Abilene Paradox?

Meaning & Definition

Abilene Paradox

The Abilene Paradox is a concept in group dynamics and decision-making that refers to a situation where a group of people collectively decide on a course of action that is contrary to the preferences of many, if not all, of the individuals in the group. It’s a paradox because the group ends up making a decision that no one wants, even though each individual member of the group privately prefers a different outcome.

The Abilene Paradox is named after a story that management expert Jerry B. Harvey shared in his 1988 article “The Abilene Paradox: The Management of Agreement.” In the story, a family is sitting on a hot afternoon in Coleman, Texas, and one family member suggests they drive to Abilene for dinner, even though none of them really wants to go, and they assume others do. They all agree and make the long and uncomfortable journey to Abilene, each person thinking they were doing what the others wanted, while, in reality, no one did.

The key elements of the Abilene Paradox include

  • Lack of Communication

In the group, individuals often don’t openly express their true preferences or concerns due to a fear of disagreement or a desire to conform to perceived group expectations.

  • False Consensus

Group members mistakenly assume that everyone else is in agreement with the proposed decision, leading to a consensus that is not reflective of individual preferences.

  • Decision-Making Drift

The group collectively moves toward a decision that nobody actually desires, resulting in a suboptimal or even counterproductive outcome.

The Abilene Paradox highlights the importance of open and honest communication within groups and the need for individuals to express their true thoughts and preferences. It underscores the dangers of “groupthink,” where individuals conform to what they believe the group wants rather than expressing their own views. Effective decision-making and avoiding the Abilene Paradox require creating an environment where people feel comfortable voicing their opinions and concerns and where the group is open to different perspectives and dissenting voices.

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