Thursday, 9 June 2016

The Abilene Paradox: A killer disease in Organisations

Couple of years ago when I entered corporate world with some ‘pieces of papers’ - called degrees, I was quite fascinated by stories about it. In general, open culture, respect for knowledge & hard work etc but in particular, decisions making process wherein ‘everyone’ was included in deliberations and discussion in a team before taking a decision.

This hallucination continued for some time, as being junior it was “Master’s Voice’ only screaming in your ears with some instructions to do only and being pulled up on one pretext or other. Fact to me remained was that there was no point of my being part of any deliberations and consensual decisions, as I was a junior. I could solace in the rationality that being junior I may not be knowing much about ‘business’ perhaps that could be one reason of my not being part of deliberations. In my fantasy, I used to think that all team members do partake actively & openly in decision making process and more commonly at senior level, until there is a dictator in a team who doesn’t allow such things.

Reality, is always far from facts. No matter what, today I understood, a decision is taken by a person only at a time, rest remaining people in a team only second it in one or other form, although they differ to the decision taken. And, this I first observed at my home. Either of parents taking a decision, other parent along with kids were supposed to say yes to it, not forcefully but ‘naturally’, reason to not to hurt others, including the decision maker. I was confused a bit first, then out of curiosity started observing what happens in other’s houses. Story was same. No change, no alteration. Ditto, the same. I used to be bewildered by such mockery happening at all levels of society. By the way organisations are also a level of society.

Then came down heavily on me, corporate culture and theories of participation, teams etc, to boost participation of individuals in decisions.

But somewhere in my heart, I was not very much convinced with the ‘discussion based decisions’ theory, as being taught & said. It was only few years ago, this enigma of mine was solved when I came across the research paper of Jerry Harvey on ‘The Abilene Paradox.

‘Abilene Paradox, as explained by Harvey, is inability to manage agreement’. It can be explained further as people take actions which are quite opposite to what actually they want to take, consequently defeating the very purpose of consultation, deliberation. It’s different than the inability to manage conflict.

In organisations, people privately know about nature of the situation or problem facing the organisation and corresponding steps that would be required to cope up with the situation or problem but do say & accept something that is in agreement with a senior. In the whole process, information being shared is not what actually one wants to say and therefore, a decision taken is based on wrong information; resulting into catastrophe to the organisation. Moreover, such wrong decisions lead to more frustration, anger, irritation and dissatisfaction among people in an organisation. Perhaps, one of the reason of people leaving organisations to find something new in other organisations. Story but remains same, everywhere.

The Abilene Paradox to explain through an example is like a decision taken by a senior, coming to know about the decision taken is not correct, will continue following decision and would not change the course as changing course may communicate low about the senior. The second in command below him would not like to dare against a decision taken by his superior as it may annoy him. The manager below him would of course not talk about his apprehensions about the decision taken as both his seniors are committed to it. Heart-in-heart, all three know, the decision taken is wrong and should be corrected immediately but because of their own fear of losing face, they continue to fail.

In meetings, it is a common phenomenon wherein an idea which was not agreeable to many becomes agreeable, the moment the senior most supports it. Everyone starts speaking well about it.

It’s what happens in fact. All efforts go in vain as people are wary of ‘losing something’. But, eventually it hurts everyone, as organisations fail.

Knowing disease of ‘Abilene Paradox’ is one, but finding out medicine for it is different. The real medication to me is building trust among team members and respecting them. Trust building starts from the team leader. The leader has to take actions, else it is simple deceiving.


Leaders should build trust to avoid the Abilene Paradox in their teams,  else succeed to fail and make their organisations fail, one day.

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