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Abilene’s paradox: How we decide to do things nobody really wants

Creativity and Innovation

Have you ever been in a situation where you think nobody likes the decision which everyone agreed to?

This might be explained by the Abelines Paradox.

Coined by management expert Jerry B. Harvey in his 1974 article “The Abilene Paradox: The Management of Agreement“, it describes a fictional case study of a family going on a long, hot, boring road trip to a dinner nobody wants to go to:

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.

The case study is meant to show how by not speaking up in advance, groups of people may end up with decisions that no individual actually thinks are good.

It is similar to the challenges of design by committee.

If a group tries to discuss options that will please everyone, often they will end up converging towards the lowest common denominator, which they think will offend the least amount of people.

But when asked individually if this is the best idea, none of them would say so. Yet they are afraid to disagree with the group openly, and so the potentially worst idea is selected.

This just goes to show why psychological safety is so important, as it helps create an atmosphere where people can openly discuss their issues and true thoughts, without fear of being punished.

And if you feel like your group is making a bad decision, it is ok to be the first person who voices their true feelings.

Who knows, other people might be relieved to also know they are not the only ones who feel that way.

And you can save yourselves the long, hot, sweaty metaphorical road trip nobody wanted.

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