The Parable of the Abilene Paradox, or the problem of failing to communicate

People are often hesitant to disagree with their colleagues. But by keeping quiet, we often cause our organizations to waste time, effort and money.

Few Christian leaders would say that they enjoy conflict, or even handle it well. But how about our inability to cope with agreement? You may remember Jerry Harvey’s Parable of the Abilene Paradox, developed in 1974. Harvey, professor emeritus of management at George Washington University, created this story to illustrate the issue of “mismanaged agreement.”

In the parable, a married couple and the wife’s parents are sitting on a porch of a house in Coleman, Texas. They are playing dominoes, drinking lemonade, watching the ceiling fan spin and attempting to survive the 104-degree heat.

The wife’s father suggests that they drive to Abilene, about 53 miles away, to eat at a cafeteria there. The son-in-law does not want to do this, but rather than make a fuss goes along with the idea, as do the two women.

They drive through a dust storm to Abilene in their un-air-conditioned 1968 Buick. No one particularly enjoys the mediocre lunch, and they drive back to Coleman grumpy and tired.

Later, they discover that none of them really ever wanted to go to Abilene; they all went simply because they thought the others wanted to go.

This parable is a great example of how we often “go along to get along” if we are hesitant to disagree with one another or stand out from the crowd. But by keeping mum, we often cause our organizations to waste time, effort and money. Harvey uses this parable to teach the management of agreement, as opposed to the management of disagreement or conflict.

In her article about the paradox, Kathryn Deiss summarizes Harvey’s six characteristics of a group headed for Abilene:

  • Members usually individually, but privately, agree about their situation.
  • They also agree about what it would take to deal with the situation.
  • Members fail to communicate their desires, and sometimes communicate the opposite, based on what they assume others desire.
  • Based on inaccurate perceptions and assumptions, members make a collective decision that leads to action.
  • Members experience frustration and anger with the organization.
  • Finally, members are destined to repeat this unsatisfying behavior if they do not begin to understand the genesis of mismanaged agreement.

Harvey says we are often willing to go to Abilene because of our deep fear of being left out, our desire to be a part of something larger than ourselves.

How can we avoid these unnecessary trips?

One solution is to take the time to develop a mutual life among staff, faculty or other members of an institution. What might a mutual life look like? It would certainly involve healthy communication, trust and time to get to know one another before discernment about priorities, programs and other good ideas.

In addition to the usual staff retreats and meetings, one seminary faculty I know developed a list of mutually agreed upon principles to guide them as they made decisions as a group. These principles began to shape some of them in their personal lives as well, such as ways of determining when they needed to take a Sabbath. The group began to see formation together as just as important as the work they were hired to do, and self disclosure and deep inquiry a vital part of managing agreement with their colleagues.