The management of agreement ...


The Abilene Paradox

Jerry B. Harvey        

The inability to manage agreement may be the major source of organizational dysfunction.


Jerry B. Harvey

That July afternoon in Coleman, Texas (population 5,607), was particularly hot — 104 degrees according to the Walgreen's Rexall's thermometer.  In addition, the wind was blowing fine-grained West Texas topsoil through the house.  But the afternoon was still tolerable — even potentially enjoyable.  A fan was stirring the air on the back porch; there was cold lemonade; and finally, there was entertainment.  Dominoes.  Perfect for the conditions.  The game requires little more physical exertion than an occasional mumbled comment, "Shuffle 'em." and an unhurried movement of the arm to place the tiles in their appropriate positions on the table.  All in all, it had the makings of an agreeable Sunday afternoon in Coleman.  That is, until my father-in-law suddenly said, "Let's get in the car and go to Abilene and have dinner at the cafeteria."

I thought, "What, go to Abilene?  Fifty-three miles?  In this dust storm and heat?  And in an unairconditioned 1958 Buick?"

But my wife chimed in with, "Sounds like a great idea.  I'd like to go.  How about you, Jerry?"  Since my own preferences were obviously out of step with the rest, I replied, "Sounds good to me," and added, "I just hope your mother wants to go."

"Of course I want to go," said my mother-in-law.  "I haven't been to Abilene in a long time."

So into the car and off to Abilene we went.  My predictions were fulfilled.  The heat was brutal.  Perspiration had cemented a fine layer of dust to our skin by the time we arrived.  The cafeteria's food could serve as a first-rate prop in an antacid commercial.

Some four hours and 106 miles later, we returned to Coleman, hot and exhausted.  We silently sat in front of the fan for a long time.  Then, to be sociable and to break the silence, I dishonestly said, "It was a great trip, wasn't it?"

No one spoke.

Finally, my mother-in-law said, with some irritation, "Well, to tell the truth, I really didn't enjoy it much and would rather have stayed here.  I just went along because the three of you were so enthusiastic about going.  I wouldn't have gone if you all hadn't pressured me into it."

I couldn't believe it.  "What do you mean 'you all'?" I said.  "Don't put me in the 'you all' group.  I was delighted to be doing what we were doing. I didn't want to go.  I only went to satisfy the rest of you.  You're the culprits."

My wife looked shocked.  "Don't call me a culprit.  You and Daddy and Mama were the ones who wanted to go.  I just went along to keep you happy.  I would have had to be crazy to want to go out in heat like that."

Her father entered the conversation with one word:  "Shee-it."*  He then expanded on what was already absolutely clear:  "Listen, I never wanted to go to Abilene.  I just thought you might be bored.  You visit so seldom I wanted to be sure you enjoyed it.  I would have preferred to play another game of dominoes and eat the leftovers in the icebox."

After the outburst of recrimination, we all sat back in silence.  Here we were, four reasonably sensible people who—of our own volition—had just taken a 106-mile trip across a godforsaken desert in furnace-like heat and a dust storm to eat unpalatable food at a hole-in-the-wall cafeteria in Abilene, when none of us had really wanted to go.  To be concise, we'd done just the opposite of what we wanted to do.  The whole situation simply didn't make sense.

At least it didn't make sense at the time.  But since that day in Coleman, I have observed, consulted with, and been a part of more than one organization that has been caught in the same situation.  As a result, the organizations have either taken side trips or, occasionally, terminal "journeys to Abilene," when Dallas or Houston or Tokyo was where they really wanted to go.  And for most of those organizations, the negative consequences of such trips, measured in terms of both human misery and economic loss, have been much greater than for our little Abilene group.

I now call the tendency for groups to embark on excursions that no group member wants "the Abilene Paradox."  Stated simply, when organizations blunder into the Abilene Paradox, they take actions in contradiction to what they really want to do and therefore defeat the very purposes they are trying to achieve.  Business theorists typically believe that managing conflict is one of the greatest challenges faced by any organization, but a corollary of the Abilene Paradox states that the inability to manage agreement may be the major source of organizational dysfunction.

 

*   See Larry McMurtry's book, In a Narrow Grave (Austin, Tex.: Encino Press, 1968), for an explanation of why Texans rely on scatology when experiencing stress.  In the original version of this chapter, published in Organizational Dynamics, the word "hell" was substituted. The substitution occurred because the editor and I shared a negative fantasy that our reputations, the credibility of the journal, and the morality of its subscribers would be irreparably damaged by such straightforward Texas terminology.

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