Communication Tips to Avoid Going to Abilene

The parable known as the Abilene Paradox represents a concept known as “groupthink.” (See “Avoid Going to Abilene.”) The Abilene Paradox—or groupthink—occurs when members of a group make a decision and take action, in spite of individual group members’ private misgivings about the desirability or wisdom of the action. They go along to get along.

In the business world, it’s important to recognize the signs of group think, and try to prevent a trip to Abilene.

The Traits of “Group Think”:

  • Discussion is limited to a few alternatives
  • The solution favored by the group is never reviewed for pitfalls
  • Alternatives initially disfavored by the group are never re-examined
  • No expert opinion is sought
  • Information gathering is selective
  • Overconfidence results in no contingency plans

Communication Tips to Prevent the Abilene Paradox:

  • Group membership should be as diverse as possible, whether it’s having representatives from engineering, IT, operations and marketing, or whether it’s a mix of different personality types, such as Analytical, Driver, Intuitive, Thinker, Feeler, etc.
  • Speak up. Don’t be afraid to express your opinion, especially if it seems counter to the way things are leaning.
  • Avoid “kneejerk agreement.” Resist the trap of hurrying through decisions (“Sounds good. So let’s move on.”) without appropriate discussion.
  • Disagree with respect. Disagreement does not mean belligerence or contempt or disrespect. Consider starting a disagreeing comment with the words, “I wonder…” (“I wonder if we have enough resources to complete the project in that time frame.” “I wonder what would happen if we added X to the mix…”)
  • Don’t criticize or insult a person (“Where’d you come up with that bone-headed idea, Jake?”). Instead look analytically at the issue (Jake, I have some questions about how your idea will work in the long term.”)
  • A group leader should create an environment where people can speak up without fear of mockery or condemnation. The leader should allow disagreement, even asking someone to play “devil’s advocate.” (“Okay, let’s think of all of the possible pitfalls of this course of action.”)

History—both political and business—is rife with tragic examples of downfalls and disaster because people involved in decisions fell into the “group think” trap. The voice of dissent should always be given an airing just to ensure the group doesn’t go to Abilene.


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