the Abilene Paradox, a story of social conformity

Have you ever accepted something, to please the rest of the group, to finally find out no one really wanted it? This is quite common when we make decisions as a group. There are simple ways to improve communication and avoid such problems.

The sociologist Jerry B. Harvey called this the Abilene paradox. It is one of the most visible effect of social conformity. Learn about the Abilene Paradox, how it works, and what you can do to prevent it in your team or organization.

The Abilene paradox: when speaking up doesn’t seem to be an option

As human beings, we all need to belong in a group. The sense of belonging is part of our vital needs. This is why we align ourselves with our group. Most of the time, it is great, as this allows us to work well together. As we share values, do’s and don’ts, we can thrive together.

However, in some cases, we believe our preferences are not the ones of the group. We think our opinion is contrary to the group, and we censor ourselves. We support, or at least don’t oppose, an option we don’t like, just to stay in the group.

This is due to a poor communication within the group, associated with fears of being judged, or excluded. As we want to show how great a member of the team we are, we support our team even if we don’t agree with the decisions.

An example of how social conformity can drive decision-making

Imagine yourself with a back of friends at your University. It is Thursday night, you all worked hard on a project, you are almost done, and just need a few more hours to complete the work and presentation for Friday afternoon. One of the group member, suggests a well-deserved break and to go out for drinks and pizza.

You feel tired and know there’s still work to do, but you don’t want to be a party pooper. If you enjoy going out, you might turn this as an opportunity to have a good time with friends. If you care for your peers’ wellbeing, you might support the idea, as you believe it will be good for your teammates.

The next day, everyone is tired, some have headaches, and finishing off your work is much harder. One team member says it was not a good idea to go out. The one who came up with the idea says it was to make everyone feel better not worse. You add you were tired and only went to please the group.

No one really understand how you have taken such a bad decision as a group. This is the Abilene paradox, an effect of social conformity.

How can a group make such bad decisions?

There are two main avenues that lead to bad decision-making, in the paradox of Abilene pattern. The first one relates to power and self-confidence. One person in the group has (or believes having) both the knowledge and the power. This person is affirmative, strong and easily influences others. No one dares to challenge, either because the position seems non-disputable or because they had no success in the past. This can be the case in directive environments.

The second avenue is when compromise and pleasing others is very high. Harmony is a core value. Everyone puts the other’s opinion or needs before theirs and no one challenges the decisions, as they believe they are what the others wants.

None of these avenues are easy to deal with, as they are both embedded in the culture, which can’t be changed easily.

How to create a safe environment

The most important thing to avoid such problems is to create a safe environment .

Understanding the five dysfunctions of a team is the best way to avoid this kind of situations. To get started, you can focus on trust. Frances Frei shares the three trust pillars in her uplifting TED Talk.