The Abilene Paradox

Published on: February 27, 2020


One of our chamber members came into my office last week and started talking about the Abilene Paradox. I don’t know about you, but I had never heard of it. So, I asked him to spell it…and now I’m trying to understand it. It is very helpful for organizations, committees and in social settings.

Here’s the deal. The Abilene Paradox is a situation in which a group of people start making group decisions which go against the wishes of its members. Let me give you an example cuz that definition was as clear as mud.

Okay, suppose you and a group of friends want to go to dinner. Now you’ve got to decide where to go. Someone suggests sushi. The group agrees on sushi at a new place. But after dinner, which was terrible and way too expensive, one of your group starts blaming everyone else for the awful suggestion. As it turns out, one of you doesn’t even like sushi and another had read awful reviews about the place. So how did you end up there? The Abilene Paradox.

While individuals in the group may believe that their plan is not sound, their fear of possible negative consequences if they oppose the plan — and their desire to maintain group harmony — keeps all of them from voicing their true opinions. What’s happening is that every individual of the group is making a compromise that is not needed. Nor are the assumptions on which they’re basing their action true. And that is how we arrive at the Abilene Paradox.

The Abilene Paradox was introduced by Jerry B. Harvey, a professor Emeritus of Management at George Washington University. It occurs because humans have a natural aversion to going against the feelings of a group. They want to conform socially. According to Harvey, the paradox may be driven because individuals believe they will experience negative attitudes if they speak up on a topic. Of course, if no one speaks up, the group will make a decision that is counter to the wishes and feelings of the group.

This overall thinking of the Abilene Paradox is called groupthink. What we’ve got here is the tendency of individuals to conform to certain social norms and to be influenced by and act in accordance with schools of thought and actions that they personally do not agree with. It’s basically social conformity. Most people don’t like the idea of being the odd man out. Groupthink keeps them from having to go their own way alone or from becoming a killjoy or rocking the boat.

So I guess we have to decide if we want to be that “yes man” in the group who keeps eating bad sushi. Or if we’d rather eat burgers alone at a sports bar and happily cheer on our favorite teams. See you at the sports bar!

Lynne Conlan is Executive Director of the Sun City Center Area Chamber of Commerce. Call her at 813-634-5111, or email