The Abilene Paradox or Why False Consensus Is a Problem
On a blistering afternoon in rural Texas in the early 1960s, a family patriarch suggested everyone pile into the car and take the 50-mile drive to Abilene for dinner.
Although the other family members had deep reservations about making the long and dusty drive, they falsely believed everyone else wanted to go. So as not to be out of step with everyone else’s perceived preference, each family member endorsed the trip, and off to Abilene they went.
After enduring bad food and a hot, four-hour round trip, they finally arrived home. One family member then said, “It was a great trip, wasn’t it?” One by one, each admitted they only agreed to go because they thought everyone else wanted to.
Writing about the family’s desire to reach an agreement, management expert Jerry Harvey introduced the Abilene Paradox to the world.
In decision-making circles, this is now known as reaching a “false consensus.” Anytime a team or group reaches consensus on a decision where there are not two or three strong champions for the choice, the possibility of the Abilene Paradox rises.
Of course, consensus does not refer to agreement. Rather, a consensus decision is made once everyone in the group can live with the choice. Ideally, only a minority of team members need to trust the wisdom of the group and commit to living with the decision.
When nearly everyone on a team projects stronger support for a decision than truly exists, false consensus is the likely result.
When leaders don’t test consensus to learn who the staunch advocates are, they can make a potentially disastrous error by presuming strong support when none exists.
False consensus is more common with groups that lack members with a diversity of experience and viewpoints, are comprised of members who highly respect each other, and are known for being highly collaborative. But no team or group is immune from this particular brand of groupthink.
The best leaders don’t take the chance a team might reach a false consensus. They ensure that every decision has one or more champions and several others that think highly of the choice. Asking team members to declare the strength of their conviction prevents this destructive paradox.
Anyone up for a drive for dinner?