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The Abilene Paradox: the inability to manage agreement

Posted by on Nov 28, 2017 in Thoughts | No Comments

The Abilene Paradox refers to the paralysis organisations, and even individuals, often fall prey to.

Please read the story below in the context of ‘The Corporate World’.


On a birthday, a family decided to go out for dinner. The husband asked the wife, “Where should we go?”

Thinking that he liked Gujarati food, she said, “Let’s go to Agashiye – The Terrace Restaurant!”

His son and daughter nodded in agreement.

On their return, the son remarked, “I wish Papa had taken us to Mainland China, as he loves Chinese food. Or at least to Shere-E-Punjab for the wonderful tandoori chicken,” added his daughter.

“Yes, I too would have loved to go Mainland China!”, the man said.

Wife looked surprised. “But, didn’t we all unanimously agree to go to Agashiye?,” she asked.

He said sheepishly “I didn’t want you to feel bad.” Both the children nodded in agreement.

Here were four people who, of their own volition, would not have gone to ‘Agashiye – The Terrace Restaurant, but collectively agreed to go there.

This also happens in the corporate world. This is the Abilene Paradox.

Management expert, Prof. Jerry Harvey, in his 1974 article “The Abilene Paradox: The Management of Agreement”, calls it ‘The Inability to Manage Agreement.’

The Abilene Paradox occurs when a group of people collectively decide on a course of action that is contrary to the preferences of most of the individuals in the group.

Prof. Harvey states in his paper ‘The Abilene Paradox’, “Organizations frequently take actions in contradiction to what they really want to do and therefore, defeat the very purpose they are trying to achieve”.

This is the inability to manage agreement.

He adds, “The inability to manage agreement, not the inability to manage conflict, is the essential symptom that defines organizations caught in the web of the Abilene Paradox.”

In the Corporate World, when the top boss throws an idea, the group immediately agrees.

This is because everyone in the group thinks he would look stupid if he disagrees.

Standing out as a lone voice is very embarrassing. This leads the group to decide on ‘yes’ when ‘no’ would have been the personal (and the correct) response of the majority.

If the top boss always disagrees with rest of group, then the organization will never have group giving honest opinion.

Russian-American novelist, Ayn Rand quipped, “If we have an endless number of individual minds who are weak, meek, submissive and impotent, who renounce their creative supremacy for the sake of the “whole” and accept humbly the ‘whole’s verdict’, we don’t get a collective super-brain. We get only the weak, meek, submissive and impotent collection of minds.”


With co-creation at the core, JSM takes continuous steps to encourage plurality of views in driving the company forward.

Albert Legori

A Visual Communication graduate from St Joseph's College (Bangalore), Albert revels in writing, designing, and holding varied conversations. As Communications Manager at JSM, he handles internal and external communication.

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