The Abilene Paradox: Going along without expressing your opinion

Have you ever heard the term “group think?”  Group think is the concept that you and others decline the opportunity to express your opinion on a subject resulting in a very poor final decision being made.  An investigation into the NASA Challenger disaster (the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986 resulting in the death of all seven crew members) revealed that group think was largely responsible for o-ring failure which was assigned as the root cause).  Group think is also illustrated by the Abilene Paradox, a short story about four individuals contemplating what to do on a hot summer day:

                                    The Road to Abilene (aka The Abilene Paradox)

On a hot afternoon visiting in Coleman, Texas, the family (husband, wife, father-in-law, and mother-in-law) is comfortably playing dominoes on a porch, until the father-in-law suggests that they take a trip to Abilene [53 miles north] for dinner. The wife says, “Sounds like a great idea.” The husband, despite having reservations because the drive is long and hot, thinks that his preferences must be out-of-step with the group and says, “Sounds good to me. I just hope your mother wants to go.” The mother-in-law then says, “Of course I want to go. I haven’t been to Abilene in a long time.”

The drive is hot, dusty, and long. When they arrive at the cafeteria, the food is as bad as the drive. They arrive back home four hours later, exhausted.

One of them dishonestly says, “It was a great trip, wasn’t it?” The mother-in-law says that, actually, she would rather have stayed home, but went along since the other three were so enthusiastic. The husband says, “I wasn’t delighted to be doing what we were doing. I only went to satisfy the rest of you.” The wife says, “I just went along to keep you happy. I would have had to be crazy to want to go out in the heat like that.” The father-in-law then says that he only suggested it because he thought the others might be bored.

The group sits back, perplexed that they together decided to take a trip which none of them wanted. They each would have preferred to sit comfortably, but did not admit to it when they still had time to enjoy the afternoon

Group think can be a dangerous trap.  Despite the opportunity for several individuals to voice their opinion and, perhaps, collectively reach a better decision, they quietly go together “down the road” to a poor result.  Does group think happen in our work environment?  Sure, I think most or all of us would say that there have been times when you knew that the group was headed toward a poor decision, but no one would speak up to challenge it.

So, if we know that group think happens and we agree that it does not lead to the best decisions, what should we do to prevent it?  Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Individuals  – We all need other people in their lives that will speak up and honestly say when we are headed down the wrong road.  Having an accountability partners (e.g., a strand of three cords) or someone else that we have specifically given permission to hold us accountable is a critical step to ensure we don’t “go to Abilene.”
  2. Leaders – Anyone that has a responsibility to lead others must take special steps to ensure that the opinions of others are important.  Several steps can be taken:
    • Repeatedly state that all opinions count – give permission to disagree with you
    • Reward or recognize those that do offer differing opinions
    • Never, ever denigrate anyone that offers a differing opinion or disagrees (respectfully, of course) with you
    • Create a safe haven for opposing viewpoints, even encouraging it (for example, before any final decision is made, you can state, “OK, if we were on the other side of this issue, what arguments or comments would we have to support the other viewpoint?”  In other words, intentionally raise and discuss opposing viewpoints before making that final decision.)
  3. Everyone – Resolve’ to exercise more candor.  We need to be bold or courageous when we have an opposing viewpoint.

Let’s resolve to avoid that “road to Abilene” that can hamper our success and overall satisfaction.  Thanks for all you do!  Have a “top ten” day!


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