April 17th, 2009

Unhelpful Co-Workers? Abilene Paradox


Why Team Members Won’t or Can’t Help

Abilene Paradox

Jerry Harvey honored his Texas roots when he named this phenomenon. The group dynamic is perhaps the most relevant to understanding why bullies can be witnessed by so many people and still get away with it.

Imagine a committee of bright people making a stupid decision. We know from talking with each person alone that each and every one of them thinks it’s a stupid thing to do. When the committee votes, however, they choose to do the stupid thing! Later, usually much later, when the decision backfires, the committee tears itself apart in its search for a culprit. The group desperately needs someone or something to blame, long after the very preventable decision was made.

This describes a group in agreement, not in conflict. They all agree privately, and individually, about the true state of affairs. They do not communicate their feelings to one another, however. Then publicly, in the presence of each other, they all deny the agreement that they don’t know exists among them.

 That’s the paradox: private vs. public versions of reality. In fact, this is the mismanagement of agreement, not disagreement. It’s all made possible by a public silence regarding what each individual knows to be true. Sound like where you work?

Take the bullying example. All the co-workers of the bully’s target know what is happening. If interviewed alone and free from retaliation, each would deplore the obvious pain the target is experiencing. However, in group settings, even without the bully present, they don’t do the right thing. When together, they don’t plan how to use their group power to overcome a lone bully. Instead, they ignore the rampant mistreatment by not communicating their positions or feelings publicly. If the target later pursues legal action and investigators on her behalf interview the team that made up the hostile environment, the finger pointing begins. 

Why does this happen? Jerry Harvey traces it to people’s overblown negative fantasies. That is, they imagine the worst possible, riskiest outcome from confronting the bully–they would lose their jobs, the bully would turn on them, they would have a heart attack, the bully would kill their children, and so on. With a mind full of negative thoughts like these, mostly about events that would never occur, the individuals act very conservatively as a group. As a group, they want to take no risk. So, they do the wrong thing, all for lack of talking about it openly. They let bad things happen to the target that they believe, as individuals, should not happen. Sick? No, simply human nature’s aversion to risk thanks to an exaggerated imagination that limits thinking about possibilities. 

“Abilene” is the Texas city in the Abilene paradox. It refers to the retelling by Harvey of a lousy decision by his family.  On a hot summer day, the family piled into a car without airconditioning and drove too many to Abilene to try a new diner. The heat was oppressive; the food was lousy. But no one dared to speak in those terms until later that night back home. Finally, the matriarch of the family broke the silence by complaining about the food. Then everyone chimed in with their complaint–the car was hot, it was stupid to try an unknown restaurant. It turns out that no one wanted to go in the first place, but no one said so when it mattered. Eventually, they all blamed the father for suggesting the drive. 

To Harvey, whenever a group is about to do the wrong thing, despite knowing it’s the wrong thing, it is a group “on the road to Abilene.” You can order Harvey’s book from our list of Recommended Books.

Silent, inactive witnesses to the bullying of others is a group “on the road to Abilene.”

The paradox is discussed in our book, The Bully At Work

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This entry was posted on Friday, April 17th, 2009 at 10:30 am and is filed under Bullying-Related Research, Tutorials About Bullying. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.



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  1. Belle says:

    The world is a dangerous place to live; not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don’t do anything about it.
    Albert Einstein

  2. LB says:

    Having experienced “mobbing” first hand, and observing the way in which bystanders (coworkers) take no action, either by inaction, or by aligning themselves with the “group think”, they are a witting or unwitting part of the bullying taking place, without getting their hands dirty.

    It’s much easier and safer, why stick your neck out, if you don’t have to…

    It is my opinion that most people will opt for personal comfort and protection, in the case of coworker mobbing/bullying, will choose the path of least resistance, that is, they will disregard the effects of mobbing by silently expressing their approval by attaching themselves to the group/mob.

    Once the mob members are identified, then the ostracization of the target can begin.

    Nothing has changed the way mob mentality functions, history has proven that.

    There will always be scapegoats/targets. Human’s are aggressive creatures, and will prey on other’s who pose a threat, whether real or imagined.

    Until human’s change their perceptions about interpersonal relationships, bullying will continue.

    • Stephan Toth says:

      In a mob situation when it comes to bullying there are always two people, the idiot doing the bullying actin and a smarter person well in the background that is the provocator whispering in the bullies ear. If you really want to solve the problem, which on would it be far better to direct and focus your response on?

  3. Stephan Toth says:

    Bullies at work always seem work under the premise that it is only business and not personal. They seem to think that because they are in a workplace environment that there cannot possibly be any real or decisive personal consequences to their actions.

    Unfortunately, far to often, for the sake of a meagre salary, people will put up with far more abuse at work than they would if they were on the street, at a pub or in their homes.

    When it comes to being bullied, in the end game, its all about a persons own principles and sense of self worth. In short, its really about where the person draws the line when it comes to how they will allow other people to treat them.

    Bullying either comes on very slow and progressive until it becomes unbearable or it comes like a hammer blow out of the blue. It is always in my opinion founded on a total disrespect of the victim by the person doing the bullying.

    I have found in the past that people who lack self confidence and principles that conduct themselves as victims usually end up being just that.

    These sort of people should seriously undertake a confidence boosting assertiveness training program or attend some dedicated classes.

    Ultimately, sooner or later they will have weigh up the cost and consequences of standing up for themselves against the person doing the bullying. I find that a very calm approach is best. In the first instance a simple stern look and a firm but non-aggressive response such as ‘don’t talk to me in that tone or manner ‘ early on, nips the bullying process in the bud.

    In more serious cases simply telling the person using the bullying tactics outright with a smile on your face, ‘you can try and bully me into agreeing with you if you like but it wont work’ also does the job.

    In extreme cases taking the person asside and telling them firmly ‘that you find their bullying behavious offensive and if they go on it will have serious personal consequences’ adequately lays the law on the line. Here of course you have to be willing and capable of backing up what you are saying.

    Having made your position absolutely clear, you have several options open to you. You can use the grievance procedures in the beginning and allow the firm to sort out the problem. Or, you can take appropriate decisive action yourself to varying degrees both within or even outside of the company span of control.

    Also, its totally up to you whether you decide to remain within the bounds of the law or on this occasion step outside of it.

    Then again, you can also do what so many victims do and decide to run away form the situation only to find that you are in a new position at the hands of yet another bully.

    So, the question is, how far are you prepared to go, and what are you prepared to put on the line, to protect your self esteem, integrator, principles and reputation?

    Question, is that minimum wage job really worth having some bully shit on you and show you up with insults day after day?

    I personally wouldn’t stand for it, and in my case, payback is always and always will be a total bitch.

    My advice is to be like a mirror and reflect back to then exactly what they show and do to you, but do it a lot harder.

    I must admit, I have told a few conceited companies in my time to go shove their job up their ass and then settle the score personally with the bully at a later date in my own special way.
    In my experience when standing up to bullies as described above, their response has be ‘Hey Steve, I didn’t think you were like that mate’. My contemptuous response is usually, ‘what the fuck, did you expect me to plead with you and kiss your asses.

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