The Abilene Paradox – Can Agreement be dangerous?

Those of you, who have shared a meal, German beer or single malt with me, know that I am passionate about psychology (especially social psychology and cognitive bias). Given how often this relates to my work and the topics in this blog, I think it is time to do my first post about psychology. It’s about the Abilene Paradox (a shout out is required here to the social psychology coursera course from Scott Plous – where I learned about it).

What is the Abilene Paradox?
The Abilene Paradox is when a group reaches consensus to do something that nobody in the group actually wants to do. Everyone ends up doing something they think everyone else wanted, but nobody did. Let me explain this with an example from my personal life  and you can read the original name-giving example here.  So let’s see whether you can relate to this:
wrong wayYou had a pretty busy week and on your way home on friday you think: “This week I hadn’t had much time for my wife, so I will make an effort and we go out together even though I rather stay at home on the couch and watch TV together”. You walk in the door and say: “Honey, what do you wanna do tonight”. She responds: “You must be tired, so perhaps we stay in. It’s OK you know” and internally she thinks: “I had a rough week as well, so we should stay home and have some quiet time”. You then respond to her: “We could go out for dinner?” and to be nice she responds “Ok, that sounds good”. You both head out for dinner and sit in the restaurant and after an average meal on the way home she says to you: “Honey, i wish we would have just stayed home.” You look at her and even though you both agreed on what to do, you ended up doing what neither of you wanted to do in the first place. Now does this sound familiar to any of you?

Example from work
How does this relate to work you might ask. Quite often when looking for solutions people don’t put forward the solution they think is best but rather a solution they either think others expect or (and I have been guilty of this as well) an idea they think is “out-there” just to find out what the reaction is. Now imagine everyone else in the room thinks the same way or just doesn’t want to disagree…all of a sudden you are on your way to Abilene.
It gets worse when you are in an environment where there is a bit of distrust. Imagine you think your boss wants you to run a certain project that you think is doomed. You provide status that is not a lie, but in the grey area to make it look okay and sound upbeat about it because you think your boss wants it. Now he might encourage you to continue working on it even though he has his doubts. Neither of you call it out and you spend days, weeks, months on something neither of you think can be successful.

What to do about it
First of all speak up. It is really hard to get out of this kind of group dynamic if there is no-one who has the courage to speak up. I have heard the expression: “Going to the balcony” in this context and it always reminds of the old Waldorf and Statler from the Muppets. It means look at the situation mentally from a few feet away. More than once in my life have I said: “Guys, let’s take a step back. Is this really what we want to do? Who here really thinks this is the best option?” In the past I always wondered what happened to us, now I know we were on our way to Abilene…
There are many ways to try to avoid this, and a lot will depend on the context. You can try a secret vote to find out the real deal, you can ask someone to actively propose an opposing view or you can use fist to five  and look out for 3s (if the majority has a 3, you might want to dig a bit deeper).

I hope you enjoyed this first trip into psychology on my blog, there will be more to come. Stay tuned until next week.

Picture: Why doesn’t anyone read the signs? by Neil R
taken from
under Creative Commons license


2 thoughts on “The Abilene Paradox – Can Agreement be dangerous?

  1. Pingback: The Second Blog: A Look Into Abilene Paradox – Michael Bannon Elements of Team Leadership Blog

  2. Pingback: Psychological Safety 70: Drive, Dissent and Checklists – Psychological Safety

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