I’m pretty sure you have seen this dynamic, although you may not be aware of it with this name. It is fundamentally a construct of Jerry B. Harvey, now a retired professor of Management at George Washington University. He first described it in 1974 in an article entitled, “The Abilene Paradox: The Management of Agreement,” Organizational Dynamics (Summer 1974): 17-34. It is reprinted here.
Stated succinctly, Harvey comments: “Organizations frequently take actions in contradiction to the data they have for dealing with problems and, as a result, compound their problems rather than solve them.” He prefaced his observations with an anecdote about his family’s horrendous trip from Coleman to Abilene, Texas, on a hot, sticky Sunday afternoon in July 1971 to eat at a hole-in-the-wall cafeteria. His hilarious rendition of this truly hair-raising incident was punctuated by the realization after the fact that no one in the family had actually wanted to do it. All had supported it because they believed the others wanted to go. Thus was born the “Abilene Paradox.”
Harvey noted that an organization’s inability to manage “private agreement” proved “a major source of organization dysfunction.” He outlined several major symptoms of the paradox at work in organizations; all are presently at work in the boardroom, the bedroom, and just about any other place one cares to look. As Harvey states it, these include:
- Organization members agree privately, as individuals, as to the nature of the situation or problem facing the organization….
- Organization members agree privately, as individuals, as to the steps that would be required to cope with the situation or problem they face….
- Organization members fail to accurately communicate their desires and/or beliefs to one another. In fact, they do just the opposite and thereby lead one another into misperceiving the collective reality….
- With such invalid and inaccurate information, organization members make collective decisions that lead them to take actions contrary to what they want to do, and thereby arrive at results that are counterproductive to the organization’s intent and purposes….
- As a result of taking actions that are counterproductive, organization members experience frustration, anger, irritation, and dissatisfaction with their organization. Consequently, they form subgroups with trusted acquaintances and blame other subgroups for the organization’s dilemma. Frequently, they also blame authority figures and one another….
- Finally, if organization members do not deal with the generic issue—the inability to manage agreement—the cycle repeats itself with greater intensity.
Harvey concluded that these dysfunctions have run rampant and uncontrolled for throughout his studies.
I have applied Harvey’s theory to an article that I wrote on the history of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and I could do the same concerning other research relating to the history of baseball, spaceflight, NASA, and a host of other subjects. Do any of Harvey’s ideas sound familiar to you?