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 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.
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.
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.
|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.|
Minimize the Paradox
The action groups can take to minimize the risks of group think are listed below.
|Actions to Improve Results||Rationale|
|Require multiple options||This increases the number of options available for evaluation.|
|Appoint a devil's advocate||This allows for dissenting views without fear of reprisal.|
|Increase team heterogeneity||This provides diverse perspectives by involving team members with different backgrounds.|
|Reintegrate members into their functions||This removes the barriers and silos created by special-purpose teams.|
The Paradox in Action
A presidential commission found an O-ring failure to be the cause of the Challenger accident. However, it also identified key decisions that contributed to the accident. The O-rings that separated sections of the rocket boosters would shrink in cold weather and risk a catastrophic explosion. The risk was well documented in engineering discussions, yet this information failed to reach the key decision makers. NASA officials stated that had they known the real risks of this cold weather launch, they would have delayed the launch. It was noted in the commission's report that Morton Thiokol, the manufacturer of the solid rocket boosters for the Challenger, reversed their original warning on the risks of a cold weather launch, most likely for fear of causing delays.
Let's see how the actions at NASA align with the symptoms.
|Symptom of Group Think||Space Flight Decision Failure|
|Pressure||NASA was under tremendous pressure to launch several shuttles per year. The pressure to launch was passed down to Morton Thiokol.|
|Mind Guarding||Thiokol's management asked the engineers to remove their engineering hat and make a business decision on the launch.|
|Stereotyping||Engineers were viewed as overly cautious and lacked credibility in making risk decisions.|
|Self-censure||After multiple attempts to persuade the team on the real risk, the engineer silenced his objections.|
|Invulnerability||Successful shuttle launches reinforced an overly optimistic view of the outcome.|
|Rationalization||The aggressive schedule for multiple launches required the balance between risk, safety and the launch schedule.|
|Morality||Marshall Space Flight management had a tendency to make decisions locally instead of involving other parties.|
An awareness of group think and the Abilene Paradox is a great first step towards make better decisions. Organizations that take actions contrary to what they really want to do suffer from this paradox. Open communication and freedom from the fear of social isolation is important in improving decision making. Of the five elements of thought that increase anxiety, the fear of social separation is the strongest. Pressure and mind guarding contributes to an individual's decision to self-censure, resulting in outcomes counter to the intended goal.
Management can improve team decision making by ensuring opposing views are among the options, appointing team members to be devil's advocate, forming teams from diverse backgrounds, and breaking down the silos formed by teams. In doing so, tragic outcomes from the Abilene Paradox may be prevented.
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