December 2, 2021

TPL Insights: Building Peak-Performance Cultures #96 – How Agreement can Stifle Breakthrough Results and Great Decision Making, part 3

By Rob Andrews

With paraphrased content from The Abilene Paradox by Dr. Jerry Harvey published December 6, 2014

In Part 3 (of 4) of our examination of the Abilene Paradox, we ask the fundamental question: What is at the core of the paradox? Fear of Separation. One is tempted to say that the core of the paradox lies in the individual’s fear of the unknown. The reality is we do not fear the unknown, rather we fear the things that are known. What do we know about that frightens us into such apparently inexplicable organizational dysfunction? Separation, alienation, and loneliness are things we do know about—and fear. Both research and experience indicate that ostracism is one of the most powerful punishments on earth. The evidence is overwhelming that we have a fundamental need to be connected, engaged, and related and a reciprocal need not to be separated or alone.

Every one of us, though, has experienced aloneness. From the time the umbilical cord was cut, we have experienced the real anguish of separation—broken friendships, divorces, deaths, and exclusions. C. P. Snow vividly described the tragic interplay between loneliness and connection: Each of us is alone; sometimes we escape from our solitariness, through love and affection or perhaps creative moments, but these triumphs of life are pools of light we make for ourselves while the edge of the road is black. That fear of taking risks that may result in our separation from others is at the core of the paradox. It finds expression in ways of which we may be unaware, and it is ultimately the cause of the self-defeating, collective deception that leads to self-destructive decisions within organizations.

The Psychological Reversal of Risk and Certainty

One piece of the map is still missing. It relates to the peculiar reversal that occurs in our thought processes as we try to cope with the Abilene Paradox. For example, we frequently fail to take action in an organizational setting because we fear that the actions we take may result in our separation from others, or we are afraid of being tabbed as “disloyal” or are afraid of being ostracized as “non-team players.” But therein lies a paradox within a paradox, because our very unwillingness to take such risks virtually ensures the separation and aloneness we so fear.

In effect, we reverse “real existential risk” and “fantasized risk” and by doing so transform what is a probability statement into what, for all practical purposes, becomes a certainty. Take the R&D organization described earlier. When the project fails, some people will get fired, demoted, or sentenced to the purgatory of a make-work job in an out-of-theway office. For those who remain, the atmosphere of blame, distrust, suspicion, and backbiting that accompanies such failure will serve only to further alienate and separate those who remain.

Our 21st century cultural emphasis on technology, competition, impermanence, and mobility, which has been exacerbated by the COVID 19 pandemic, has resulted in a global workforce that has frequently experienced the terror of loneliness and infrequently the satisfaction of engagement. Consequently, though we have learned of the reality of separation, we have not had the opportunity to learn the reciprocal skills of connection, with the result that, like the ancient dinosaurs, we are breeding organizations with self-destructive decision-making proclivities.

A Possible Abilene Bypass

Existential risk is inherent in living, so it is impossible to provide a map that meets the no-risk criterion, but it may be possible to describe the route in terms that make the landmarks understandable and that will clarify the risks involved. In order to do that, however, some commonly used terms such as victim, victimizer, collusion, responsibility, conflict, conformity, courage, confrontation, reality, and knowledge have to be redefined. In addition, we need to explore the relevance of the redefined concepts for bypassing or getting out of Abilene: Victim and Victimizer. Blaming and faultfinding behavior is one of the basic symptoms of organizations that have found their way to Abilene, and the targets of blame generally doesn’t include the critics.

Stated in different terms, executives begin to assign one another to roles of victim and victimizer. Ironic as it may seem, however, this assignment of roles is both irrelevant and dysfunctional, because once a business or a government fails to manage its agreement and arrives in Abilene, all its members are victims. Thus, arguments and accusations that identify victims and victimizers at best become symptoms of the paradox, and, at worst, drain energy from the problem-solving efforts required to redirect the organization along the route it really wants to take.


A basic implication of the Abilene Paradox is that human problems of organization are reciprocal in nature. You can’t have an autocratic boss unless subordinates are willing to collude with his autocracy, and you can’t have obsequious subordinates unless the boss is willing to collude with their obsequiousness. Thus, in plain terms, each person in a self-defeating, Abilene-bound organization colludes with others, including peers, superiors, and subordinates, sometimes consciously and sometimes subconsciously, to create the dilemma in which the organization finds itself.

To adopt a cliche of modern organization, “It takes a real team effort to go to Abilene.” In that sense each person, in his own collusive manner, shares responsibility for the trip, so searching for a locus of blame outside oneself serves no useful purpose for either the organization or the individual. It neither helps the organization handle its dilemma of unrecognized agreement nor does it provide psychological relief for the individual, because focusing on conflict when agreement is the issue is devoid of reality. In fact, it does just the opposite, for it causes the organization to focus on managing conflict when it should be focusing on managing agreement.

Responsibility for problem-solving action

A second question is: Who is responsible for getting us out of this place? To that question is frequently appended a third one, generally rhetorical in nature, with “should” overtones, such as, isn’t it the boss (or the ranking government official) who is responsible for doing something about the situation? The answer to that question is no. The key to understanding the functionality of the no answer is the knowledge that, when the dynamics of the paradox are in operation, the authority figure—and others—are in unknowing agreement with one another concerning the organization’s problems and the steps necessary to solve them. Consequently, the power to destroy the paradox’s pernicious influence comes from confronting and speaking to the underlying reality of the situation, and not from one’s hierarchical position within the organization.

Therefore, any organization member who chooses to risk confronting that reality possesses the necessary leverage to release the organization from the paradox’s grip. In one situation, it may be a research director’s saying, “I don’t think this project can succeed.” In another, it may be a lower-level manager stepping up and suggesting, “I think we’ve lost our way and need to consider a reset.” In yet another hypothetical scenario, it could be a CEO who’s experience an epiphany saying to his or her leadership team, “Folks, I’ve got a sinking feeling we may be headed down the wrong road and would like to suggest a reset.”

Reality, Knowledge and Confrontation

Accepting the paradox as a model describing certain kinds of organizational dilemmas also requires rethinking the nature of reality and knowledge, as they are generally described in organizations. In brief, the underlying dynamics of the paradox clearly indicate that organization members generally know more about issues confronting the organization than they don’t know. The various principals attending the research budget meeting, for example, knew the research project was doomed to failure.

Given this concept of reality and its relationship to knowledge, confrontation becomes the process of facing issues squarely, openly, and directly in an effort to discover whether the nature of the underlying collective reality is agreement or conflict. Accepting such a definition of confrontation has an important implication for change agents interested in making organizations more effective. That is, organizational change and effectiveness may be facilitated as much by confronting the organization with what it knows and agrees upon as by confronting it with what it doesn’t know or disagrees about.

Since our work is all about helping build cultures of peak performance, we often draw on Jerry’s work. As the Abilene Paradox is alive and well in many 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 order the book. Next week we’ll conclude this series on the Abilene Paradox. Since time and space preclude me from sharing all of Jerry’s wisdom, I’ll invite you to give us a call.

Warmest Regards,

Rob Andrews
Allen Austin
Consultants in Retained Search & Leadership Advisory