In our previous two articles we introduced Professor Jerry Harvey’s concept of the Abilene Paradox and how it affects group decision making in both our personal and work lives. We also reviewed six tell-tale signs that a group or work team has stumbled into the Paradox and is “on the road to Abilene.”
In this post we will explore the psychological underpinnings of the Paradox. Why would a group of people (families, companies, or even governments) take action in contradiction to the data they have for dealing with a problem and, as a result, compound the problem rather than solve it?
According to Professor Harvey, group members are impacted by a number of psychological factors.
- The first principle is action anxiety—an intense uneasiness created when we think about acting in accordance with what we believe needs to be done. Action anxiety occurs as we anticipate the results of taking action, and the results we foresee are negative instead of positive.
- Negative fantasies or perceived risk are visualizations where we focus on the harmful effects resulting from our actions, rather than improvements to the situation. They provide an excuse for not taking responsible action.
- One might think that fear of the unknown contributes to the Abilene Paradox. Most likely the real operating factor is our fear of separation. According to Professor Harvey, we fear the label of “non team player” which brings with it the fear or separation, alienation, and loneliness—all things we know very well and prefer to avoid.
- The real risk associated with any situation is usually not the same as our negative fantasies or perceived risk. We can never play it completely safe, because real risk is a part of life, both in business and at home. But when we are afraid to accept real risk as one of life’s givens, we often take a trip to Abilene, and thereby take on a far greater risk—the risk of mismanaged agreement, misdirected effort, and missed opportunities.
- Finally, there is the confusion of fantasy and reality. We have a tendency to give negative fantasies and perceived risk more weight than they deserve. What we imagine will go wrong if we say what’s in our heart seems more real to us than the more likely disaster that often results from going along with the crowd.
The Abilene Paradox video illustrates the power of these psychological factors through the hilarious example of a young engaged couple questioning their decision to marry. Secretly, neither one really wants to go through with the wedding, but they are caught up in the momentum of the event, are afraid to hurt one another and do not want to disappoint their family and friends. Fixated on the consequences each thinks they will face if they change their plans…and the negative fantasy the bride has surrounding her mother’s reaction to her calling off the wedding…the two nearly make the biggest mistake of their lives.
In our next and final article on the Abilene Paradox we’ll present some specific actions group members and group leaders can take to counter these psychological factors and keep their team from “goin’ to Abilene”.
About the author: Peter J. Jordan is President and CEO of CRM Learning. He directed the original Abilene Paradox video and was Executive Producer of the revised version. This is the third in a series of articles to be posted on the Abilene Paradox and how organizations can skip the trip.
Reference: Jerry B. Harvey, “The Abilene Paradox: The Mismanagement of Agreement”, originally published in Organizational Dynamics.