The Abilene Paradox

Once a leader and his team decide to celebrate an occasion by going out for a dinner. The team has a quick chat and suggests that they go to an Italian Restaurant. Seeing that the team came up with the option unanimously, the leader agrees.

 

As they finish the dinner, the leader says “We come here often. We should’ve gone for a different option tonight – may be Chinese or Indian.”

 

The team is surprised. When the leader suggested for a team dinner, they got into a huddle. During their chat, one team member proposed to go for Italian thinking that the choice will make his leader happy. Given the whole team knows that their leader prefers Italian food, everyone agrees without thinking twice. But the fact is that none of them like Italian food.

 

They say “We opted for Italian restaurant as you like Italian food. As today is a special occasion for you, we proposed Italian. Given a choice, even we would’ve preferred a different option.”

 

Does this sound familiar?

 

It happens often in our daily lives – both at work and outside of it.

 

The team knows that Italian food is their leader’s favorite and to keep him happy, they opted for it. The leader went for it as he thought it was his team’s unanimous choice.

 

As a result, everyone unanimously chose something that no one individually wanted. This is known as The Abilene Paradox OR The Management of Agreement.

 

This was first explained by Jerry Harvey. He used an experience from his life that involved a place called “Abilene” in the US and thus the name.

 

Let’s take a moment to step back and understand why this happens.

 

This occurs due to two reasons.

 

Reason 1:

Lack of expression

 

The first one is pretty obvious. The situation could’ve been memorable if either any member of the team or the leader would have talked about their preference.

 

From the team’s perspective:

 

Lot of times, we avoid speaking up because we fear that others may mis-understand us or we fear that our opinion would differ from the rest of the crowd, thus we might be isolated.

 

From the leader’s perspective:

 

By mentioning his opinion, which was different from the team’s choice, the leader didn’t want to sound imposing. And also, he didn’t want his team feel obliged and to agree to his choice.

 

As a result, both of them went with the flow and ended up choosing something the neither of them would’ve chosen.

 

Reason 2:

 

Bias

While the first one is obvious, the second reason is far more subtle. The fact that the team knows what their leader’s choice indicates that the leader has, in more than one occasion, chose to indicate his choice and that too in a far more imposing manner. As a result, it made his team believe that this is what he likes and nothing else.

 

Now that the root causes of this are known to us, let’s look at what needs to be done to avoid this from happening in our lives.

 

  1. Speak up: When you have an opportunity to state your choices & preferences or express your thoughts & emotions, speak up. Be clear, specific and objective while speaking up. In addition to letting others know your thoughts, this also ensures that you don’t get personal.

 

  1. Avoid creating biases: As a person holding a position of power, either professionally or personally, avoid creating biases – deliberately or otherwise. While you talk about your preferences, ensure that you are not forceful and imposing. Also, ensure that you are giving opportunity to others to express their choices and often following their suggestions as well. This will help your people to not only know your choices but at the same time they feel free to state their choices and they even know that you do follow their suggestions as well. Remember, as a person holding a position of power, you are always under a microscope.

 

What are your experiences with “The Abilene Paradox”?

 

(Aditya Kuchibhotla is a Career Coach and a Life Coach helping people with their personal and professional aspects. You can reach out to him on his website www.adityakuchibhotla.com)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *