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7 Oct

The Abilene Paradox

Last year, we were deliberating on the alumni referral programme at Stoa, and how exactly to structure them. I made the decision with the other founders and the admission lead to take the help of a growth consultant to decide on the next steps forward.

One of the suggestions provided by the consultant was to give a direct monetary incentive to the one providing the reference and an equal discount to the one who gets referred. After the meeting in which this idea was suggested, we had an internal discussion to check if we should really go ahead with monetary incentives. We eventually went ahead with it.

Six months into the said referral programme we experienced all the possible loopholes and got onto another call to discuss how to course-correct.

We started this particular meeting by tracing our way back to how we got to this point. And a few interesting responses came up. There were about six of us who took the final decision. These were the kind of conflicts we were facing internally —

“Is the CAC too high for this?” — “But if we don’t pursue this, we won’t get new applicants.”

“In the previous organisation I worked at, this did not work but what if doing this makes us better off?” — “But everyone usually thinks I take very conservative decisions but for this instance, I don’t want to be the only one opposing it.”

Secretly, all of us convinced ourselves to ignore our objections.

Consequently, we took a decision that none of us was inherently on board with. We went ahead with a referral programme as a group even though almost all of us had doubts about pursuing it.

This is the Abilene Paradox.

In his paper 'The Abilene Paradox - The Management of Agreement', Jerry B. Harvey, explains it using this anecdote:

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 50-mile trip to Abilene 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.

In the Abilene Paradox, everyone in the group, individually, is against the decision. But at the same time, individuals feel everyone else is on board with the decision and they would be sticking their neck out unnecessarily by objecting to it.

Extrapolating to what it means for an organisation, he says,

“Organizations frequently take actions in contradiction to what they really want to do and therefore defeat the very purposes they are trying to achieve. It also deals with the corollary of the paradox, which is that the inability to manage agreement is a major source of organisational dysfunction.”

Haven’t you experienced a similar instance at work when a manager asks for your opinion — particularly your inability to express a personal preference or thought, and leaning toward agreeing with the majority?

The fear of consequences, if individual acts in line with a personal point of view, is a major deterrent to going against the group’s view.

“Everyone usually thinks I take very conservative decisions but for this instance, I don’t want to be the only one opposing it.”

Jerry succinctly explains the reason for this:

"That fear of taking risks that may result in our separation from others is at the core of the paradox. It finds expression in ways of which we may be unaware, and it is ultimately the cause of the self-defeating, collective deception that leads to self-destructive decisions within organizations."

Are there ways to avoid taking the trip to Abilene?

Yes, but first you need to assess if the situation is default conflict or default consensus.

In the case of a conflict, people in groups are likely to express individual points of view without hesitation, so the communication is clear, even if people are in conflict.

But it is when you notice people defaulting to consensus on the course of action without any objections being made, that you should be wary of falling prey to the Abilene paradox.

And to mitigate this, you need to make sure every key decision-maker in the group is allowed to put forth their views on the table, without fear — so that any objections are made explicit and if other individuals object as well, they get permission to voice those objections.

Understanding this paradox will allow you to engage with work more honestly.

Regardless of if you run a business, are a manager, or an associate you will be pulled into situations where group decisions have to be made. As a manager, understanding how to take criticism and feedback from your team constructively will help you avoid the trip to Abilene.

Juniors in your team will often not assume the authority to express their points of view with freedom. So, it is your responsibility to make sure that happens. And the way you do that is by providing them with a space to speak their mind without the fear of reprisal.

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