The Abilene Paradox

From Organizational Dynamics, Summer 1988, pp. 17–43. © 1988 by the American Management Association, New York. All rights reserved.  The Abilene Paradox:The Management of Agreement – Jerry B. Harvey

The July afternoon in Coleman, Texas (population 5,607) was particularly hot— 104 degrees as measured by the Walgreen’s Rexall Ex-Lax temperature gauge. In addition, the wind was blowing fine-gained West Texas topsoil through the house. But the afternoon was still tolerable—even potentially enjoyable.
There was a fan going on the back porch; there was cold lemonade; and finally, there was entertainment. Dominoes. Perfect for the conditions. The game required little more physical exertion than an occasional mumbled comment, “Shuffle ‘em,” and an unhurried movement of the arm to place the spots in the appropriate perspective on the table. All in all, it had the makings of an agreeable Sunday afternoon in Coleman—this is, it was until my father-in-law suddenly said, “Let’s get in the
car and go to Abilene and have dinner at the cafeteria.”

I thought, “What, go to Abilene? Fifty-three miles? In this dust storm and heat? And in an
unairconditioned 1958 Buick?”

But my wife chimed in with, “Sounds like a great idea. I’d like to go. How about you,
Jerry?” Since my own preferences were obviously out of step with the rest I replied,
“Sounds good to me,” and added, “I just hope your mother wants to go.”

“Of course I want to go,” said my mother-inlaw. “I haven’t been to Abilene in a long time.”
So into the car and off to Abilene we went.
My predictions were fulfilled. The heat was brutal. We were coated with a fine layer of
dust that was cemented with perspiration by the time we arrived. The food at the cafeteria
provided first-rate testimonial material for antacid commercials.
Some four hours and 106 miles later we returned to Coleman, hot and exhausted. We sat
in front of the fan for a long time in silence.

Then, both to be sociable and to break the silence, I said, “It was a great trip, wasn’t it?”

No one spoke.

Finally my mother-in-law said, with some irritation, “Well, to tell the truth, I really didn’t enjoy it much and would rather have stayed here. I just went along because
the three of you were so enthusiastic about going. I wouldn’t have gone if you all
hadn’t pressured me into it.”

I couldn’t believe it. “What do you mean ‘you all’?” I said. “Don’t put me in the ‘you all’ group. I was delighted to be doing what we were doing. I didn’t want to go. I only went to satisfy the rest of you. You’re the culprits.”

My wife looked shocked. “Don’t call me a culprit. You and Daddy and Mama were the ones who wanted to go. I just went along to be sociable and to keep you happy. I would have had to be crazy to want to go out in heat like that.”

Her father entered the conversation abruptly. “Hell!” he said.  He proceeded to expand on what was already absolutely clear. “Listen, I never wanted to go to Abilene. I just thought you might be bored. You visit so seldom I wanted to be sure you enjoyed it. I would have preferred to playanother game of dominoes and eat the leftovers in the icebox.”

After the outburst of recrimination we all sat back in silence. Here we were, four reasonably sensible people who, of our own volition, had just taken a 106-mile trip across a godforsaken desert in a furnace-like temperature through a cloud-like dust storm to eat unpalatable food at a hole-in-the-wall cafeteria in Abilene, when none of us had really wanted to go.

In fact, to be more accurate, we’d done just the opposite of what we wanted to do. The whole situation simply didn’t make sense.

At least it didn’t make sense at the time.


JERRY B. HARVEY is professor of management science at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. He is a graduate of the University of Texas in Austin, where he earned an undergraduate degree in business administration and a Ph.D. in social psychology.
A member of the International Consultant’s Foundation, a Diplomate of the American Board of Professional Psychology, and a member of the O.D. Network, he has served as a consultant to a wide variety of industrial, governmental, religious, and voluntary organizations. He has written a number of articles in the fields of organizational
behavior and education and currently is involved in the exploration of moral, ethical, and spiritual issues of work. In the pursuit of that interest, his book, The Abilene Paradox and Other Meditations on Management, was published by Lexington Books in 1988.