Abilene Paradox: Be mindful when making collective decisions

Wednesday, 2 December 2020 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Good leaders are said to be good decision makers. However, when things are complex and multi-disciplinary, collective decision making by a team having such multi-disciplinary knowledge is vital. There should be an atmosphere, where everybody has the chance to express their views enriching the quality of the final decisions made by the leaders. 

On the other hand collective decision making needs not to limit to organisations per se and can be applicable to even at family level. It may be the government, a corporate entity or a family unit the quality, or else the assurance of both effectiveness and efficiency of the decision will largely depend on the level of contribution by the constituent members. Sometimes, group decision making is preferred to individual decision making as groups can make creative decisions compared to decisions made individually. Indirectly, it enhances team building and would be of advantage, if the same team is responsible for implementing the decisions made as well. 

Sri Lanka is considered as a country which has a collectivist society. This type of a society fosters strong relationships and that would underpin collective decision making. On the negative side, one would say that collective decision making would lack responsibility towards the decisions made. 

A crucial moment for collective decision making

The aspiration of the whole country today is to see either an end or, at least, a control of fast spreading COVID-19 pandemic in the country. People are eagerly following media to get information about the latest control measures and updates of the prevailing situation. A COVID Task Force has been appointed by the Government which comprises of experts in many fields such as health, military, police and some other with the establishment of the institutional arrangement called the National Operation Centre for Prevention of COVID-19 Outbreak. In addition, sub committees are appointed as and when needed to give recommendations on certain issues.

There is no doubt that the control of COVID-19 will be more or less based on the decisions and actions taken by this Task Force and the sub-committees appointed while people are forced to adhere to health guidelines to best possible level. When making crucial decisions for controlling the pandemic many aspects have to be considered with careful attention as we are dealing with people. Imposing curfew, locking down certain areas, imposing travel bans, home quarantine and the like always hamper many essential needs of the people. Not only material needs like of food, essential medicine, loss of income and other basic things but also humane needs like care for the children and elderly and differently abled family members and safety needs are amid them. Similarly, on the macro scale, there can be shocking impacts on general society, economy, culture and many other areas. 

We noticed some controversial situations regarding the applicability of herbal medicines for treating COVID-19 patients, whether people should be immunised with so called COVID-19 vaccines, the appropriateness of rapid antigen test, whether it is risky to burry people died from COVID-19 and so on. All these issues need the careful attention of specialists in many sectors in order for fair and effective decision making. Similarly, those who are involved should be able to make unbiased decision devoid of common decision making pitfalls. Therefore, it is very important to be aware of certain common pitfalls in decision making. The purpose of this article is to discuss such a phenomenon known as ‘Abilene Paradox,’ which could greatly affect collective decision making. 

 Abilene Paradox

The Abilene Paradox concept was introduced to management literature by Jerry Harvey, a management expert. He described it as the contradiction between the intended purposes of an action and the actual result during group work. Although, all members of the group are well aware of the issue they have to solve, they fail to communicate their individual beliefs to the group. Eventually, this lack of communication results in an action which is counter to the preferences of many or all of the members in the group. 

This is explained with a nice example as quoted below from Wikipedia where the case is relevant to a decision made by a family. Nevertheless, the members of a group in an organisation could behave in a similar way when subjected to Abilene paradox and end up in total frustration about the final outcome. 

The story

“On a hot afternoon visiting in Coleman, Texas, the family is comfortably playing dominoes on a porch, until the father-in-law suggests that they take a [50-mile] trip to Abilene 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.”

How it differs from group-think

Apparently, Abilene Paradox and group-think go hand in hand. However, there is a considerable difference. In group- think many members of the group maintain silence without expressing their idea and rather agree the final group decisions. On the contrary, in Abilene Paradox members act against individual wishes and likely to have negative feelings about the final decisions reached by the group. In short, it is the lack of opportunity created by inadequate communication or purposeful reluctance to get involved in the decision making process expressing individual differing ideas.

How to avoid 

If we do not have anything to enjoy in Abilene there is no point of visiting there. Therefore, we have to avoid the idea during group decision making. Following are some steps that would hinder your heading towards Abilene. 

1. Create an environment so that every member can voice their opinion: Everyone should feel comfortable voicing their opinion. The group leader can play a vital role here. He should always ask open ended question rather than saying “So, you all agree” which force the group to say “yes”. He should encourage the members to speak up. 

2. Make room for disagreement: An environment should be created where everyone is able to express their ideas, ideally, different opinions which are genuinely taken up for discussion. Moreover, the ability to manage conflicts within the group is very important. 

3. Avoid straightforward unanimous agreement: If a quick fix unanimous agreement is sought most of the group members would pretend to agree in order for the decision to move forward. What is important is lengthy discussion of opposing ideas so that the final solution incorporates all vital aspects presented by the members of the group.

Concluding remarks

Therefore, before making decisions leaders should ascertain whether individual members truly support the decision making process with active communication. Silence, nodding to what the leader says and lack of alternatives from the group are dangerous signals. Also, leaders should create an atmosphere where subordinate members feel comfortable to raise their voices. Otherwise, leaders may start to head towards Abilene with the group, entailing many detrimental consequences.

“When the knife is in my back, why are my fingerprints on it?” is the question asked by Jerry Harvey and it is worth probing.

(Eng. Thushara Dissanayake can be reached through dmtsdissa@yahoo.com)