Why teams fail ?Abilene Paradox

The term was introduced by  Jerry B. Harvey in his 1974 article “The Abilene Paradox: The Management of Agreement”

Group of people together decide an action a group that is against the preferences of many or all of the individuals in the group. It is about failure in group communication, where each team member mistakenly believes that his/ her individual choice or preference is against the group preference.

All of them decided something, which no one wanted

One hot afternoon in Texas, a family is busy playing dominoes. And, there comes a suggestion from the father-in-law for taking a trip to Abilene – 85 Kms north to Texas for dinner. The wife quite likes the idea. Though the husband is little apprehensive about the long drive in the hot weather. but still agrees to step-out with group and says he too is good with the plan. The mother in law then says she also would like to go and that she had never been to Abilene in long time.

The drive was hot, dusty and long. The food at the cafeteria in Abilene was not great. They reached back home exhausted after an exasperating drive of 4 hours. One of them dishonestly says ” great trip”. The mother-in-law said she would have rather stayed at home. The husband then told that he was always apprehensive about going on the drive. The wife then said she only agreed thinking that everyone would want to go. The father-in-law said he only suggested thinking all of them were getting bored and would want something like this.

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.

Abilene Paradox in Organization

The ABC Corporation is a small medium enterprise The president of ABC has hired a consultant to help discover the reasons for the poor profit picture of the company in general and the low morale and productivity of the R&D division in particular. During the process of investigation, the
consultant becomes interested in a research project in which the company has invested a big proportion of its R&D budget.

When asked about the project by the consultant in the privacy of their offices, the president, the vice-president for research, and the research manager each describes it as an idea that looked great on paper but will ultimately fail because of the unavailability of the technology required to make it work. Each of them also acknowledges that continued support of the project will create cash flow problems that will jeopardise the very existence of the total organisation.

When asked why, the president says he can’t reveal his “true” feelings because abandoning the project, which has been widely publicised, would make the company look bad in the press and, in addition, would probably cause his vice-president’s ulcer to kick up or perhaps even cause him to quit, “because he has staked his professional reputation on the project’s success.” Similarly, the vice-president for research says he can’t let the president or the research manager know of his reservations because the
president is so committed to it that “I would probably get fired for insubordination if I questioned the project.” Finally, the research manager says he can’t let the president or vice-president know of his
doubts about the project because of their extreme commitment to the project’s success.

Symptoms of the Paradox that you can look out for

  • Employees expressing different opinions in private and in groups
    If your people are telling you one thing and then offering their true opinions only in private, there’s likely an issue with communication. It’s common for bad news to have trouble flowing upstream in an organisation, but if no one’s telling you the plan is a dud, you’ll never know.
  • Encourage people to give feedback.If someone in team gives constructive feedback, do not discourage him/her.
  • Members seem frustrated or resentful towards management and other team members
    If your organisation has a habit of letting bad ideas come to fruition, then it stands to reason that someone’s being blamed for each failure. There’s plenty of reasons for employees to be resentful of management- some is reasonable and some isn’t. In this case, you’re looking for resent for being blamed- often for tasks that when assigned were already doomed to failure.
  • Members avoid responsibility or even attempt to blame others
    The same systemic habit of failure mentioned above can often lead to a culture of blame. If no one feels the freedom to point out bad ideas, then no one wants to take responsibility for them either.
  • Members exhibit a lack of trust
    Eventually, all of these things erode trust. Employees distrust management that doesn’t listen to their concerns and that delegates not only tasks, but also blame for failed initiatives. Corporate politics then lead to backstabbing and blame-shifting among employees under such management, as everyone does what they can to avoid being targeted.
  • All decisions require unanimous agreement
    Leadership by committee can breed horrible decision-making. On the one hand, it may increase buy-in. On the other hand, every member is incentivized to agree as soon as possible, or risk being stuck in committee session longer than they want, as well as risk the image of dissenter.
  • Very little dissent from group opinion is observed
    Again, lack of dissent is not always a good thing- in fact, if you as a manager aren’t encountering any dissent for the decisions you make, that should be a red flag. You have a choice- you can go on believing that the reason that your employees fail to argue with you because all of your decisions arise from bulletproof logic and infallible judgment, or you can probe to find out if the Abilene Paradox is thriving under your leadership.

Analysing the paradox

Organisations frequently take actions in contradiction to the data they have for dealing with problems and, as a result, compound their problems rather than solve them.

The Abilene paradox are attributed to the following reasons :-

(1) Action Anxiety; (2) Negative Fantasies; (3) Real Risk; (4) Separation Anxiety; and (5) the Psychological Reversal of Risk and Certainty.You’ve gotta dance there’s nobody watchAction Anxiety : The problems lies in the intense anxiety that is created as they think about acting in accordance with what they believe needs to be done. As a result they agree to an unworkable research project or the consequences of participating in not-so-good activity rather than acting in a manner congruent to their beliefs.

2. Negative Fantasies : All of the organisation members have had negative fantasies about what would happen if they acted in accordance with what they believe.The various managers in the discussed case study of R&D organisation foresaw loss of face, prestige, position, and even health as the outcome of confronting the issues about which they believed, incorrectly, that they disagreed

3. Real Risk :Risk is a reality of life, a condition of existence. There are
too many cases when confrontation might result in being fired.
Thus real risk is an existential condition, and all actions do have consequences that, to paraphrase Hamlet, may be worse than the
evils of the present.

4. Separation, alienation, and loneliness are things that frightens us into apparently inexplicable organisational behaviour like Abilene paradox.
Separation, alienation Both research and experience indicate that ostracism is one of the most powerful punishments that can
be devised.

That fear of taking risks that may result in our separation from others is at the core of the paradox.

5. Reversal of risk and certainty : When we frequently fail to take action in an organisational setting because we fear that the actions we take may
result in our separation from others, or, in the But therein lies a paradox within a paradox, because our very unwillingness to take such risks virtually ensures the separation and aloneness we so fear. In effect, we reverse “real existential risk” and “fantasied risk” and by doing so
transform what is a probability statement into what, for all practical purposes, becomes a certainty.

Take the case study described earlier. When the project fails, some people will get fired, demoted, or sentenced to the purgatory of a make-work job in an out-of-the way office. For those who remain, the
atmosphere of blame, distrust, suspicion, and backbiting that accompanies such failure will serve only to further alienation and separation.

  1. Victim & Victimiser:

Blaming and faultfinding behaviour is one of the basic symptoms
of organisations that have found their way to Abilene, and the target of blame generally doesn’t include the one who criticises.Once a business or a government fails to manage its agreement and arrives in Abilene, all its members are victims.

2. Collusion :

Each person in Abilene-bound organisation colludes with others, including peers, superiors, and subordinates, sometimes consciously and sometimes subconsciously, to create the dilemma in which the organisation finds itself.

3. Responsibility for problem-solving action :Who is responsible for getting us out of this place? Isn’t it the boss who is responsible for doing
something about the situation? The answer to that question is no. Every member is responsible for problem-solving action.

William W. Purkey

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