The Abilene Paradox

First they came for the Communists, but I was not a Communist so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Socialists and the Trade Unionists, but I was neither, so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew so I did not speak out. And when they came for me, there was no one left to speak out for me.

-Martin Niemöller (German Theologian and Lutheran Pastor)

One of my goals this year is to read more and in effort to stay on track, I recently started a book called, Quiet by Susan Cain. I’m still early in the book but from what I can gather so far, it’s about introversion and how the perception of introverts evolved over time due to many factors including economic changes in America. More specifically, how Western culture changed from a culture of character (e.g. business relationships anchored in trust and familiarity) to a culture of personality and bravado. I’m only a few chapters in but I highly recommend this read.

One chapter part of the book mentions a concept called the Abilene paradox which highlights the danger of group think and individual silence. Here’s a more detailed explanation, courtesy of Wikipedia:

The Abilene paradox, a group of people collectively decide on a course of action that is counter to the preferences of many or all of the individuals in the group. It involves a common breakdown of group communication in which each member mistakenly believes that their own preferences are counter to the group's and, therefore, does not raise objections. [1]

Here’s a short story to drive the point home: On a hot afternoon visiting in Coleman, Texas, a  family is comfortably playing dominoes on a porch, until the father-in-law suggests that they take a trip to Abilene [53 miles north] for dinner. The wife says, "Sounds like a great idea." The husband, despite having reservations because the drive is long and hot, thinks that his preferences must be out-of-step with the group and says, "Sounds good to me. I just hope your mother wants to go." The mother-in-law then says, "Of course I want to go. I haven't been to Abilene in a long time."

The drive is hot, dusty, and long. When they arrive at the cafeteria, the food is as bad as the drive. They arrive back home four hours later, exhausted.

One of them dishonestly says, "It was a great trip, wasn't it?" The mother-in-law says that, actually, she would rather have stayed home, but went along since the other three were so enthusiastic. The husband says, "I wasn't delighted to be doing what we were doing. I only went to satisfy the rest of you." The wife says, "I just went along to keep you happy. I would have had to be crazy to want to go out in the heat like that." The father-in-law then says that he only suggested it because he thought the others might be bored.

The group sits back, perplexed that they together decided to take a trip which none of them wanted. They each would have preferred to sit comfortably, but did not admit to it when they still had time to enjoy the afternoon.  Linked Source


How many times have you found yourself in a situation that you didn’t like or anticipate, just because you didn’t speak up when you had a chance? I know I’m certainly guilty of this, more so in my younger years than now. I’ve learned to speak my mind even if what I have to say may be unpopular or (gasp!) incorrect.

I think variations of this phenomenon play out differently depending on the environment. For instance, have you ever seen someone at work resign, only to trigger a wave of attrition throughout the department? Or someone assaulted or harassed on the street and until one person bravely steps in to help, everyone else ignores the situation? Or a situation where a bully that taunts a peer until someone intercedes in defense of the bullied and then everyone miraculously has newly found courage to step in also. It’s almost as if people look to the people around them for permission to speak up! Pretty disturbing, right?

I attended an event two months ago for Girls Leadership, an organization focused on helping young girls find their voice. One of the panel speakers made a comment that stayed with me, even several months later. Paraphrasing, she said, whether you may be right or wrong, always have a point of view and always speak up.  It’s very easy to take the path of least resistance and be complacent or go with the crowd but I think all of us need to remember that our voice can be a pretty powerful engine for change and unless we use it, we may just find ourselves in a situation that doesn’t serve us or our community.

[1] The term was introduced by management expert Jerry B. Harvey


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