Abilene Paradox – Definition

Cite this article as:"Abilene Paradox – Definition," in The Business Professor, updated March 31, 2019, last accessed June 5, 2020, https://thebusinessprofessor.com/lesson/abilene-paradox-definition/.

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Abilene Paradox Definition

A situation in which a group of people make a decision that’s against the wishes of its constituent members. Usually, this occurs because individuals feel the need to conform to social and peer pressures. For example, a member may not want to reveal his true feelings because he doesn’t want to “be a buzzkill” or “stir the pot”. Often these fears are misguided and have no correlation to how the rest of the group would actually react if the aforementioned member had spoken his views.

A Little More on What is the Abilene Paradox

To give you an example of the Abilene Paradox in question, consider this scenario. You and your friends are playing cards in Coleman, Texas. One of your buddies says, “Hey, let’s go to a restaurant in Abilene!” The city is 80 kilometers away and you are in no mood to go, but your other friends agree enthusiastically. You may feel pressured to conform with the feelings of the group. That pressure one feels to act like they belong, even if one has no inclination towards the said act, is an example of the Abilene Paradox. Further, the Abilene Paradox also posits that an individual’s perceived biases about the group’s reaction to their actions might not be true.

In the above example, it’s possible that none of the other group members are interested in the long drive to Abilene, but they’re all agreeing because they think disagreeing will turn the group sour towards them. It’s also possible that the person who made the suggestion was kidding, and has no actual inclination to go to Abilene.

What’s happening here is every individual of the group is making a compromise that is not required. Nor are the assumptions on which they’re basing their actions true. That is the sum total of the Abilene Paradox.

Groupthink and Social Conformity

This behavior is also called “Groupthink”. It is an oft studied and analysed phenomenon in industries, organisations, and social settings, as it sheds light on the psychological and social behavior of groups and the intra group relationship dynamics.  

The tendency of individuals to conform to societal norms, and be influenced by and act in accordance with schools of thoughts and actions that they personally do not agree with, is called ‘social conformity’. Most people do not like the idea of being the odd man out. They want in on the groupthink rather than go their own way.

In a professional organisation, this groupthink has a trickle down effect with individuals refraining from questioning their superiors for fear of negative consequences, and teams devolve into echo chambers that reinforce the same ideas.

Building effective teams entails receiving useful feedback, getting different perspectives on an issue, and examining the efficacy of an idea to contribute to growth. It is imperative that leaders ask themselves whether their ideas are being met with genuine alacrity or are they and their teams the victims of the Abilene Paradox.

References for Abilene Paradox

Academic Research on Abilene Paradox

The Abilene paradox: The management of agreement, Harvey, J. B. (1988). The Abilene paradox: The management of agreement. Organizational Dynamics, 17(1), 17-43. This paper examines the Abilene Paradox in the management of companies.

How much do you trust me? The dark side of relational trust in new business creation in established companies, Zahra, S. A., Yavuz, R. I., & Ucbasaran, D. (2006). How much do you trust me? The dark side of relational trust in new business creation in established companies. Entrepreneurship theory and practice, 30(4), 541-559. This paper looks at the negative aspects of implicit trust in the building and management of a new business by established firms.

Group decision making: The potential for groupthink, Lunenburg, F. C. (2010). Group decision making: The potential for groupthink. International Journal of Management, Business, and Administration, 13(1), 1-6. This paper examines the phenomenon of Groupthink in business administration.

Paradoxes and prospects of ‘public value’, Talbot, C. (2011). Paradoxes and prospects of ‘public value’. Public Money & Management, 31(1), 27-34. This paper evaluates various business paradoxes through the lens of public value.

Environmental value chain in green SME networks: the threat of the Abilene paradox, Rizzi, F., Frey, M., Testa, F., & Appolloni, A. (2014). Environmental value chain in green SME networks: the threat of the Abilene paradox. Journal of cleaner production, 85, 265-275. This paper gauges the threat of the Abilene Paradox in the green SME networks.

The Abilene paradox: The management of agreement, Harvey, J. B. (1988). The Abilene paradox: The management of agreement. Organizational Dynamics, 17(1), 17-43. This book sheds light on the Abilene Paradox, defines, explains, and analyses its effect in organisations.

Pluralistic ignorance: historical development and organizational applications, Halbesleben, J. R., & Buckley, M. R. (2004). Pluralistic ignorance: historical development and organizational applications. Management Decision, 42(1), 126-138. This paper sheds light on the construct of pluralistic ignorance, its historical development and the impact on organisational studies.

The impact of group interaction styles on problem-solving effectiveness, Cooke, R. A., & Szumal, J. L. (1994). The impact of group interaction styles on problem-solving effectiveness. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 30(4), 415-437. This journal analyses the impact of group dynamics, different interaction styles, and their effectiveness in solving problems.

Project post-mortems mindless mismanagement of agreement, McAvoy, J., & Butler, T. (2009). Project post-mortems mindless mismanagement of agreement. Journal of Decision Systems, 18(1), 53-73. This project sheds light on mindless and mindful decision making and its impact on management of group agreements.

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