What is the Abilene Paradox?

Abilene Paradox definition

The Abilene Paradox refers to a situation when a group makes a collective decision that is counter to the thoughts and feelings of its individual members. The Abilene Paradox occurs because individuals do not want to ‘rock the boat’ or ‘be a killjoy,’ even though their perceptions of the other members’ feelings are incorrect.

The Abilene Paradox was introduced by management thinker Jerry B. Harvey, Professor Emeritus of Management at The George Washington University, in an article on the subject. It occurs because human beings have a natural aversion to going against the feelings of a group - they want to conform socially. According to Harvey, the paradox may be driven because individuals believe they will experience negative attitudes or feelings if they ‘speak up’ on a topic. Of course, if no-one speaks up, the group will make a decision that is counter to the wishes and feelings of the group.

The paradox is similar to groupthink but generally when the Abilene Paradox occurs, the individual members of the group feel the overall decision is a poor one, but this isn’t always the case with groupthink. Efficient groups must work to overcome both groupthink and the Abilene Paradox as part of optimising group dynamics.