The Abilene Paradox-Part I

The Abilene Paradox
People, often cited as a reason for change failure, frequently rock the organizational boat, but they also lie to avoid rocking the boat. What is this inconsistency about?

Over the course at least the last 10+ years, the PEOPLE aspect of change is consistently cited as one of the top reasons for challenged organizational change initiatives. In many cases they are guilty “of rocking the boat”, but do they fully realize what they are doing why they are responsible? As we briefly suggested in our previous blog, and it seems they may not.

People LieBut on the other hand during a change initiative, people also lie in order to avoid rocking the boat, and they probably do realize this. They tell leaders what they think the leader wants to hear, even when it is a lie, and this causes many problems.

For example, when employees are asked difficult questions by organizational leaders, they generally respond out of an intention to maintain the status quo. People lie, in this case not out of meanness or intentional deception, but out of a desire for approval.

One of the best illustrations of this point is found in the “Abilene Paradox”, a book written by Dr. Jerry Harvey and published in 1988. The chapter with that name describes in some detail the extent to which people will lie and say they agree with others, even when they don’t.

It is a conspiracy within groups that is ostensibly based on the desire to foster agreement. Actually, it is an excuse we use when we think it is to our advantage to misrepresent our true feelings.(to be continued…)

Harvey, Jerry, (1988) The Abilene Paradox, Jossey Bass.