The Abilene Paradox - Have you ever been on the Road to Abilene?
In 1974, Jerry B. Harvey, professor of management science at George Washington University, outlined a common communication breakdown which he coined the “Abilene Paradox,” which he explains is how the inability to properly manage agreement can be an indication of dysfunction within an organization. In other words, how is it that a group of people can gather and discuss a plan, agree on the steps to take, and then proceed to implement the plan when everyone involved was opposed to the idea all along? The inability to properly manage agreement can have serious consequences when it comes to workplace safety. As you continue to read ask yourself, “could this be happening in my organization?”
Dr. Harvey introduced this concept in his 1974 article, “The Abilene Paradox: The Management of Agreement.” He shares a story about a family excursion to Abilene, Texas that took place on a very hot summer day in drought conditions, with no air conditioning, along a very rough country road, for a less-than-satisfying meal at a cafeteria. After returning home exhausted and covered with dust, each family member shared their real feelings: none of them wanted to go to Abilene in the first place! Each had agreed to the trip based on the misconception that others wanted to go. Rather than disappoint someone, each acquiesced and went along for the ride. Therein lies the paradox. Why would everyone agree to go when no one actually wanted to go? More importantly, how can people prevent this from happening, especially if it threatens workplace safety?
A significant element to any safety program is ensuring there is accurate, truthful, and timely communication throughout the organization. When talking about upcoming projects, equipment operation, formal company communications, or safety initiatives there has to be people willing to disagree with others. This is especially true if they have valuable information, experience, or reasons to believe the consensus could lead to unsafe conditions. The fear of “rocking the boat” can stifle that willingness to speak up. If one person has legitimate concerns it is possible that others do as well. Once the conversation is started and more information is discussed, it might become clear that the group was about to hit the road to Abilene and one person’s initiative to disagree made all the difference.
There have been many disasters in history that can be attributed to this paradox. Dr. Harvey discusses many events, from the Vietnam War to the Watergate scandal and the Challenger space shuttle disaster. In these cases, many people knew the proposed plans were fraught with hazards, yet they failed to voice their opinions. They were “team players” to the end but yielded to the pressure of others. Had they recognized that others had the same concerns history might have turned out differently.
Although the Abilene Paradox is similar to groupthink, it differs in a major way. Groupthink involves people coming to a consensus through discussion despite the fact that the premise is greatly flawed. Each person in the group is influenced and becomes convinced that the proposed idea is a good one. In the Abilene Paradox, no one in the group believes the idea is a good one, yet they all go along with it.
When it comes to your workplace safety issues, it is critical that all parties express honest and credible opinions before decisions are made. Make no assumptions as to what others think- they might just have the same reservations that you do but were hesitant to speak up. When those in charge actually listen to everyone rather than just sail full steam ahead, there are bound to be better decisions made.
Going along with the boss is usually seen as a good idea, but what if the boss is making decisions based on flawed information? It’s easy to get on the road to Abilene, a bit tougher to turn the car around in the driveway.
For more information on other workplace safety issues check out our resources at MEMIC.com and check out MEMIC’s Safety Experts Podcast #34 to hear the full story of the Road to Abilene and more about the Abilene Paradox.