01 January 2017

Managing Agreement

Here is a management theory explained as an allegory. See if you recognize the decision-making process which made the Abilene Paradox possible.

In an Abilene paradox, a group of people collectively decide on a course of action that is counter to the preferences of many (or all) individuals. It involves a typical breakdown of group communication in which each member mistakenly believes their choices are counter to the group's and, therefore, does not raise objections. 

A common phrase relating to the Abilene Paradox is a desire not to "rock the boat." This differs from groupthink in that the Abilene paradox is characterized by an inability to manage agreement.

Going out for dinner

The term was introduced by management expert Jerry B. Harvey in his 1974 article The Abilene Paradox: The Management of Agreement. 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 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 decided to take a trip that 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.


Ronald Sims writes that the Abilene Paradox differs significantly from groupthink. In groupthink, individuals do not act contrary to their conscious wishes and generally feel good about the group's decisions.

According to Sims, in the Abilene Paradox, the individuals acting contrary to their own wishes are more likely to have negative feelings about the outcome. In Sims' view, groupthink is a psychological phenomenon affecting the clarity of thought, whereas in the Abilene Paradox, thought is unaffected.

Like groupthink theories, the Abilene Paradox theory illustrates that groups not only have problems managing disagreements but that agreements may also be a problem in a poorly functioning group.

  1. Has your management team ever taken a trip to Abilene? 
  2. Why is consensus a potentially risky proposition?  
  3. What's solidly held in common where you work?  
  4. How can you build on that strength?

Source:  Jerry B. Harvey, Wikipedia ®, Ronald R. Sims


(C) Bredholt & Co.