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The Abilene Paradox: A Thinking Trap for Teams

minute read

🧠 The Abilene Paradox: says that we make decisions based on what we THINK everyone else wants to do (even if we have objections). 

😓 Professor Jerry B. Harvey coined the phrase with a story in his article “The Abilene Paradox: The Management of Agreement”:

One hot afternoon in Coleman, Texas a family is playing board games on their porch.

Suddenly the father-in-law suggests they drive to Abilene for dinner (a 100 mile round trip).

The wife says it sounds like a good idea.

The husband says “Sounds good to me, just hope your mother wants to go.”

Then the mother-in-law says, “Of course I want to go!”

🚗 It’s a hot, dusty, long drive (even by Texas standards).

And when they get back four hours later everyone is exhausted.

One of them lies and says, “That was a great trip!”

The mother-in-law says she would have rather stayed home.

The husband says, “I just went along to satisfy the rest of you.”

Finally the wife says, “I just went to keep you happy.”

The father-in-law says, “I only suggested it because I thought ya’ll were bored.”

Everyone is confused.

The family took a trip NOBODY wanted to go on, because nobody felt safe enough to say they'd rather stay sitting on the porch.

Think your team might be falling for a thinking trap like this one?

You might be if: 
❌ You rule by committee
❌ There’s a lack of psychological safety on your team
❌ There’s no history of dissent without consequences

To avoid the Abilene Paradox, start by asking yourself: 

  • Do we have a system or a culture where anonymous feedback is able to be shared?
  • Can we establish a discussion environment where people can play Devil's Advocate safely and without fear of political consequences?
  • How actively is leadership seeking out alternative points of view or dissenting opinions? Do they welcome challenges to strategies and decisions?

About the author

Jen Clinehens, MS/MBA

Hi 👋 I'm Jen Clinehens (MS, MBA) the founder and Managing Director of Choice Hacking.

I started Choice Hacking in 2021 to help marketers and entrepreneurs figure out what makes buyers tick, and elevate their work using behavioral science, marketing psychology, and AI.

If you want to learn more, check out links to my newsletter, podcast, YouTube channel and other free resources below 👇


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