The Abilene Paradox

30.08.2018 |

Episode #9 of the course Brain-twisting paradoxes by John Robin


Welcome to our second to last day. To get us started, I’m going to rock the boat.


Why You Don’t Speak Up …

You’ve probably heard the expression “rock the boat” before, but you might not have thought about it in terms of today’s paradox.

Imagine you’re part of an exciting new app development business. You’re a leader, in fact! All your partners are excited and sharing their ideas, and a new opportunity is on the horizon. So much time and thought has gone into everything, and launch day is coming.

Except … you don’t know why your partners aren’t considering one of the biggest flaws. Of course, you’re probably overreacting because there are five of you, and surely, if this was an issue, your other partners would have mentioned something. You’re newer in this venture, and you feel like they’ve given you a big chance, so you’re reluctant to speak up.

You don’t want to rock the boat.

So, you say nothing,and the app goes through to launch. And that one big flaw you were worried about becomes a big issue. Everything fails. The business goes bankrupt. You really should have said something! But it’s too late now …


Welcome to the Paradox of Groupthink

What you’ve just seen is a live example of today’s paradox in action. It’s called the Abilene paradox, named after Abilene, Texas, when it was first mentioned in a 1974 paper by management expert Jerry B. Harvey.

Harvey was trying to demonstrate a phenomenon in psychology called groupthink, in terms of group dynamics. In his original problem, he imagined a family on a porch on a hot Texas day. There’s a father-in-law, a wife, a husband, and a mother-in-law. The father-in-law suggests a road trip to Abilene, a 60-mile drive. It’s the 1960s, so there’s no air conditioning. As you can imagine, this will not be a fun trip. The father-in-law is nonetheless excited.

The wife, who is the father’s daughter, doesn’t like disappointing her father, so she says, “Sounds good to me!” The husband, who is intimidated by his wife’s father and still feels he needs to make a good impression, says, “I’m in too. Of course, that’s only if your mother wants to go.” The pressure’s now on the mother-in-law—in fact, the pressure of the whole group. Now, she’s thinking about the heat and being trapped in the car for more than an hour, but she’s also thinking about how she’ll let everyone down. So, she goes along.

The trip is a disaster.

Only afterward, as they’re mutually complaining, does the mother-in-law say she only went along because she didn’t want to rock the boat. That’s when the husband admits he went along because he thought it’s what everyone wanted, and then the wife says she thought going would make her father happy. And then, lastly, the father-in-law, who started it all, admits he only suggested the idea because he was bored in the house in the heat.

All of this could have been avoided if only they’d given one another permission to disappoint!


Applications of the Abilene Paradox

As you can see, in our original example of being the silent one on a flourishing team and in the original paradox example, it’s easy to assume what the group wants and instead, not know what the individuals in it desire.

In the case of our app development, no one in the group wanted to go bankrupt! Had you spoken up, you might have rocked the boat a little, but others might have seen the validity of your argument.

Many businesses and committees adopt communication models based on awareness of how this paradox plays out. Encouraging employees or partners to speak up without placing them at risk helps individuals share more openly without assuming they must abide by an assumed (often erroneous) group model. Even the simple psychological technique of perspective taking, where you tell another speaker what you think you’re hearing them say, allows one to step outside one’s assumptions about the group conversation and let the speaker(s) correct false assumptions.

We live together in contradiction when we go silent and are afraid to speak up! If anything, your takeaway from today’s paradox is that sometimes the best way to avoid capsizing is to rock the boat!

Let that soak in as you enjoy the rest of your day. I hope you’re excited for our last paradox tomorrow. Be warned! An unexpected hanging is involved …


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Recommended reading

Jerry B. Harvey’s original article on the Abilene paradox.


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