September 17, 2020

Total Performance Leadership Blog Post #33: Unified Leadership-How Avoiding The Abilene Paradox Will Help You Achieve Peak Performance

By Rob Andrews


Written by Rob Andrews with paraphrased content from The Abilene Paradox by Dr. Jerry Harvey, published December 6, 2014

Most boards and leadership teams (and married couples, for that matter) are destined to fall far short of their potential. The fault lies in what one of my favorite consultants calls the Abilene Paradox. I first heard Dr. Jerry Harvey in 1996 while attending graduate school at the University of Texas at Austin. I came to know him well through his writings, videos, and one memorable meeting at UT. From this point forward, I’ll refer to him as Jerry. Jerry got his Ph.D. from UT in Psychology, practiced as a management consultant, and taught at George Washington University. He built a consulting model around the Abilene Paradox, a concept that helps explain why most organizations fall short of achieving unified leadership, optimal organizational health, and cultures of peak performance.

In an Abilene Paradox, a group of people collectively decides on a course of action that is counter to the preferences of many or all of the individuals in the group. It involves a common breakdown of group communication in which each member mistakenly believes that their own preferences are counter to the group’s and, therefore, does not raise objections. A common phrase relating to the Abilene paradox is a desire to not “rock the boat”. This differs from groupthink in that the Abilene paradox is characterized by an inability to manage agreement.

The first story I heard Jerry tell was about a hot, miserable June 1961 afternoon in Coleman, Texas when he, his new bride, and his in-laws drove 53 miles to Abilene in an unairconditioned 1958 Buick to have dinner at a subpar cafeteria. Unbeknownst to everyone, no one really wanted to embark upon this inauspicious journey.

The trip only took place because Jerry’s father-in-law, while bored to tears playing dominoes on the front porch, thought he ought to break the silence.  “Let’s get in the car and go to Abilene and have dinner at the cafeteria,” he suggested. His daughter, Jerry’s wife, obligingly replied, “Sounds like a great idea, I’d like to go! How about you Jerry?” Jerry had no interest in going but, fearing his preferences were out of step with the rest, replied by deferring to his mother in law – he was on board, “as long as your mother wants to go.”

You know the rest of the story. Four hours, 106 miles, and a terrible dinner later, everyone was exasperated at Jerry’s father-in-law for suggesting such an unpleasant outing. Jerry’s father-in-law, upset by this placement of blame, replied, “Sheeit, I was only making conversation. I never thought you’d take me up on such a dumb idea. I’d have been just as happy to play another game of dominoes and have leftovers out of the icebox.”

Since our work is all about helping build cultures of peak performance, based on nine principles we observe in peak performing organizations, we often draw on Jerry’s work. As the Abilene Paradox is alive and well in most organizations, I encourage you to read Jerry’s books as we have found them incredibly valuable. The easiest and most entertaining is The Abilene Paradox. The other, which will really make your head explode, is How Come Every Time I Get Stabbed in the Back My Fingerprints are on the Knife? The title alone should cause you to drop what you’re doing and place an order. Since time and space preclude me from sharing all of Jerry’s wisdom, I’ll start by paraphrasing one case study in The Abilene Paradox called “The Boardroom.”

Ozyx Corp. is a small industrial company that is on its way to Abilene. The CEO has hired a consultant as a last result to prevent the company from going broke. The consultant quickly determines morale is at rock bottom and keeps hearing about a research project that Ozyx has publicly committed to completing. The goal of this project is to develop a technology that turns peanut oil into jet fuel.

When the consultant separately asks the President, the Vice President of Research, and the Research Manager, each one says the same thing. The idea looked great on paper, but was ultimately destined for failure because of unavailable technology. Privately, each admits to the consultant that Ozyx’s continued commitment to the project will bankrupt the company. None of them has told the others about their reservations. With both the public and each other, all three maintain an optimistic façade.

The President has not revealed his true feelings because reneging on such a highly publicized commitment would be bad press, causing the Vice President’s ulcer to flare up. He was also afraid the Vice President would quit as she had staked her reputation on the project’s success.

The Vice President hasn’t spoken up because she believes the President is so committed to the project that questioning its value might get her fired for insubordination.

The Research Manager says he can’t disclose his misgivings to the Vice President or president because of their collective enthusiastic and very public support of the project. He admits to writing ambiguous progress reports so the President and Vice President can interpret them as they wish. In fact, he says he slants reports to the positive, given how committed his superiors are to the project.

You can probably guess how this one turned out. The consultant was successful in helping stop the madness, but not before irreversible damage had been done. Eight months had been wasted in a widely publicized and much-ballyhooed commitment to turning peanut oil into jet fuel. The company did survive, but suffered unnecessary damage because of the Abilene Paradox.

The Abilene Paradox stems from the human condition, which causes all of us to behave irrationally when we fear separation from what we value most. Stay tuned for next week when we dig further into the paradox and how to avoid it.

If this material causes you to think there may be some of the paradox at work in your organization, we’d love to help. Give us a call.

Warmest Regards,