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The Abilene Paradox is a situation that often takes place in groups, and, if left unaddressed, can lead to highly adverse consequences both for the group as a whole and for its individual members. The current paper provides an overview of the Abilene Paradox. The crux of this paradox is described, as well as several methods of addressing a paradoxical situation that already takes place in a group, as proposed by Harvey (1988). After that, a number of features of the group dynamics which lead to the paradox are discussed, and some ways to prevent it from happening are named.
The Crux of the Paradox
Harvey (1988) describes the Abilene Paradox by presenting a group of relatives that takes a long trip to Abilene in hot weather. None of the relatives wanted to go, but assumed that others wanted to, which caused each of them to support the decision to take the trip, resulting in a paradoxical situation.
Harvey (1988) describes the six symptoms of the paradox:
- People privately agree with each other about the nature of the problem;
- They privately agree on the steps to address the problem;
- They do not tell each other what they actually want, and do the opposite;
- Using the inaccurate information, the group takes actions contrary to what they want to do;
- Consequently, people become frustrated and blame other subgroups in the group;
- The whole group stays unaware of this process and repeats it, often with greater intensity.
The researcher argues that this paradox can occur due to the lack of understanding how a paradoxical situation can occur. He develops the model of such occurrence by examining five landmarks:
- Action anxiety. It takes place when a person becomes anxious after thinking about doing what they believe should be done;
- Negative fantasies. Harvey (1988) writes that these cause the person to become anxious when they imagine possible negative outcomes of doing what they think ought to be done;
- The real risk of the possible adverse outcomes of doing what one believes should be done;
- The fear of separation from the group due to the person’s actions.
- The psychological reversal of risk and certainty. It happens when a person is trying to cope with the paradox.
The author offers to create models of this paradox and to identify the roles of the participants of such paradoxical situations. It is paramount to understand what the participants do, because this might enable one to identify the paradoxical situation and break the adverse dynamics taking place in the group, thus preventing that situation from developing further and harming the group more severely. To do so, Harvey (1988) also provides a method of identifying the existence of the paradox (to determine whether it takes place, eight diagnostic questions are offered), and supplies a way to deal with it. It is argued that working with separate individuals involved in the situation usually proves ineffective because the nature of the paradox implies collusion among the participants of the group, and working with separate people further supports this collusion (Harvey, 1988). Therefore, an open confrontation at a group meeting is proposed to deal with the existing paradoxical situation.
The Abilene Paradox and Group Dynamics
The Abilene Paradox is an important aspect which should be taken into account when the dynamics of a group are considered. It may be possible to assert that this paradox takes place when certain problems in the group exist. According to Morton (2004), some of the issues that are characteristic of situations in which the Abilene Paradoxes occur include: low cohesion of the members of the group (which becomes even lower after the defective decision is made); and incompetent or ineffective leadership, or the absence of any leadership at all. In addition, it should be stated that the members of the group experience dissatisfaction with their own actions, but are afraid of ostracism/exclusion from the group, thus choosing to adhere to adverse behavioral patterns which are practiced by the rest of the group participants.
In contrast to that, effective group dynamics require that the group is sufficiently cohesive, and that the leaders of the group are able to create the atmosphere in which the members do not fear to express their concerns, and, in fact, it is expected of them to do so without the fear of penalty.
It might also be possible to state that the Abilene Paradox results from one of the particular traits of groups in general as described by group dynamics – namely, the overall ineffectiveness of groups when it comes to sharing information inside the group (“Group Dynamics and the Abilene Paradox,” 2016). To counterbalance this adverse characteristic of groups, it might be advised that group leaders purposefully welcome debate in their groups; in addition, it can be recommended to ask lower-ranking employees share their opinions first, so that they would not be aware that their opinions contradict the views of their bosses (if they do), and would not fear expressing these opinions (“Group Dynamics and the Abilene Paradox,” 2016).
On the whole, the Abilene Paradox, which results from several features of typical group dynamics (such as the problems with sharing information) and from a number of problems existing within concrete groups (such as poor leadership and poor cohesion between the members), may cause significant problems for organization. Thus, it is pivotal to take steps minimizing the chance of the paradox’s occurrence, and, should it take place, to attempt to address it before it leads to profoundly adverse consequences.
Group dynamics and the Abilene Paradox. (2016). Web.
Harvey, J. B. (1988). The Abilene paradox: The management of agreement. Organizational Dynamics, 17(1), 17-43.
Morton, T. D. (2004). The Abilene paradox. Web.