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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