The Abilene Paradox - Definition & Examples

Instructor: James Blackburn

James has over 25 years of experience in higher education. He has an MBA from Auburn University and MA in Humanities from Cal State Dominguez Hills. He is currently a Doctoral candidate at the University of North Georgia. James's research focus is on how storytelling can modify beliefs and behaviors.

The Abilene Paradox occurs when the outcome of a group's actions contradicts the intent of the decision. In this lesson, we will define the paradox, describe its elements and analyze the space shuttle Challenger example.

The Tragedy of the Abilene Paradox

On January 27, 1986, a NASA shuttle was experiencing yet another delay due to technical problems. By the time it was ready for launch, high winds forced its cancellation, and freezing temperatures were expected overnight. As a precaution, NASA management instructed engineers to evaluate the impact of cold weather on the shuttle. No critical issues were reported back to management. The space shuttle Challenger was ready for launch. The countdown for NASA's mission 51-L began.

On January 28, 1986, at 11:38 AM EST, the Challenger's rockets ignited and propelled it skyward. 73 seconds into flight, the shuttle and crew were lost.

Challenger Flight Crew
Challenger Flight Crew

The Abilene Paradox

Jerry Harvey, a management expert, used the term Abilene Paradox to describe the contradiction between the intended purposes of an action and the actual result. Individually, members of a group understand the problem they are trying to solve. They know the steps necessary to achieve the expected outcomes. However, they fail to communicate these individual beliefs to the group. This lack of communication facilitates false agreement and results in the group taking action contrary to the organization's intent.

Harvey named the paradox after a trip his family made to Abilene, Texas. Jerry's father-in-law was concerned that his family was growing bored sitting at home. So, he suggested a trip to Abilene for dinner. Despite no real interest in making the hour long trek on a hot summer afternoon, all enthusiastically agreed to the journey. Harvey recognized that this false agreement is all too common in group decision making and called the phenomenon the Abilene Paradox. Let's learn more about the paradox.

Challenger Moving to Launchpad for a Mission in 1983
Shuttle moving through fog

Risk Avoidance in the Paradox

Five elements of thought contribute to the paradox. First, individual group members fail to take action on their own beliefs because of the anxiety they experience about voicing opposing ideas. This action anxiety is fueled by a belief that voicing an opposing view will result in negative outcomes. This negative fantasy may be reinforced by events where individuals who voiced an opposing view were labeled as not being team players. If this occurred, a real risk does exist. The risk of being ostracized from the group results in separation anxiety. The individual copes with separation anxiety by agreeing with the group. This agreement is the psychological reversal of risk and uncertainty.

Group Think and the Paradox

The Abilene Paradox is one outcome of group think. Group think occurs when a team seeks harmony through agreement without the opposing views needed for effective decision making. Psychologist Irving Janis's seven symptoms leading to group think are listed below.

Symptom Description
Invulnerability Groups view outcomes through an overly optimistic lens.
Rationalization Groups discount warnings of unfavorable outcomes.
Morality Groups develop an unquestioned belief in their inherit morality and disregard ethical warnings.
Stereotyping Groups view opposing viewpoints as evil and lacking credibility.
Pressure Groups apply direct pressure on members with opposition views to sway decisions.
Self-censure Individual group members silence their own views when different from the group.
Mind guarding Individual group members take it upon themselves to protect the group from opposing points of view.

Challenger Explosion
Challenger Explosion

Minimize the Paradox

The action groups can take to minimize the risks of group think are listed below.

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