Mismanaged Agreement – The “Abilene Paradox” Workshop

Mismanaged Agreement – The “Abilene Paradox” Workshop


Individuality, equal opportunity, centralized organizational structure—these have been the hallmarks of traditional American management.  But times have changed.  For more than three decades, managers worldwide have been engaged in fierce competition with global competitors in a rapidly expanding international marketplace.

To meet this competition, companies have modified their approach to management, with an increasing emphasis on quality, customer service, teamwork, and decentralized, participative management.  Change comes slowly to large organizations.  It happens bit-by-bit, and decision-by-decision.  The Abilene Paradox Workshop provides the tools to help your company address a key dynamic in group decision-making and participative management — mismanaged agreement — and to take a more pragmatic and honest approach to group consensus.

The Abilene Paradox is a recognized milestone in training. Originally based upon the article of the same name by Dr. Jerry Harvey, it examines one of the core dynamics of group decision-making, and helps managers and their work teams recognize the downside of mismanaged agreement.

The Abilene paradox is a scenario in which a group of people collectively decide on a course of action that is counter to the preferences of any 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 groups and, therefore, does not raise objections.

This fast-paced Wolf Management Consulting workshop will help managers, supervisors, and staff find positive ways to come to effective agreements between individuals and groups, and avoid the trap of moving in directions that are counter-productive to the group’s overall purpose. 

Workshop Goals

The activities in this workshop can help build a pragmatic and open approach to decision-making.  The overall goals of the workshop are:

  • To recognize the paradox of mismanaged agreement, and understand how it contributes to poor group decisions.
  • To explore the personal and psychological dynamics that affects each person’s involvement in group discussions and agreement.
  • To initiate measures to help groups avoid making counter-productive decisions.

How the workshop builds understanding

The Abilene Paradox is a quick and entertaining video that clearly demonstrates the paradox of mismanaged agreement and the way it can influence decision-making within a work unit or an organization, often to the detriment of the group’s goals.  The workshop’s exercises focus, first, on the possible consequences of passively accepting a decision without communicating our true feelings about it.  Organizational psychologists believe that we hesitate to speak up to avoid being ostracized from the group or seen as a loner.

Our personal fears of being seen as different, more so than actual pressure from the group, cause this response.  Unfortunately, the “don’t rock the boat” approach to decision management often stifles honest opinions and valid concerns.  When silence contributes to poor decisions, what often results are precisely those conditions that prompted the silence in the first place: failure and ultimate separation from the group.

Second, the activities in the workshop help participants recognize the road signs that can tell someone that the group has embarked on a trip to Abilene.  Road signs can include ways of thinking that we notice in ourselves, or external signs such as blame, criticism of the company, etc.

Third, the workshop activities demonstrate general preventive measures to “turn the car around” mid-route, bypass Abilene, or even better, avoid embarking on the trip. Generating options, asking clarifying questions, and checking assumptions are strategies that bring useful information to the surface, and encourage individual participants to share opinions that might seem contradictory to the group’s apparent consensus.

Finally, the workshop facilitates discussion and group decisions about specific ways for their own teams and groups to “skip” future trips to Abilene, and make more honest decisions.

Workshop Agenda

Through a series of narrated video vignettes, we will present the theory and content behind the Abilene Paradox.  You and the participants will provide the context and apply the theory to your everyday work situation.


The following terms are used in the video and workshop materials.  Using them in your office conversation after the workshop will help manage your agreements effectively. 

Abilene Paradox – Defined as the curious tendency of groups to make decisions that individual members do not truly support. 

Action Anxiety – An intense uneasiness created when we think about acting in accordance with what we believe needs to be done.  Action anxiety occurs as we anticipate the results of taking action, and the results we foresee are negative instead of positive.

Agreement Manager – The person in a group who takes it upon themselves to stimulate discussion, to encourage options identification, and move towards true consensus.

Fear of Separation – The unspoken fear that people have of being isolated from others in the group.  One might think that the fear of the unknown contributes to the Abilene Paradox.  Most likely, the real operating factor is our fear of separation.  We fear the label of “non-team player” which brings with it the fear of separation, alienation, and loneliness—all things we know very well and prefer to avoid.

Mismanaged Agreement – This is the tendency of group members to hesitate to offer their true opinions, and to therefore agree to a decision that they don’t support.

Negative Fantasy – the disaster scenarios that we play out in our minds when faced with a major decision.  Negative fantasies, or perceived risk, are visualizations of the harmful effects resulting from our actions, rather than improvements to the situation.  They provide an excuse for not taking responsible action.

There is also the confusion of fantasy and reality.  We have a tendency to give negative fantasies and perceived risk more weight than they deserve.  What we imagine will go wrong if we say what’s in our heart seems more real to us than the more likely disaster that often results from going along with the crowd. 

Real Risk – the true negative consequences of an incorrect decision, as opposed to the disaster scenarios of our negative fantasies.  The real risk associated with any situation is usually not the same as our negative fantasies or perceived risk.  We can never play it completely safe, because real risk is a part of life, both in business and at home.  But when we are afraid to accept real risk as one of life’s givens, we often take a trip to Abilene, and thereby take on a far greater risk—the risk of mismanaged agreement, misdirected effort, and missed opportunities.

Trip to Abilene – Any decision that a group makes against the unvoiced wishes of its members. Such a trip is inevitably the result of mismanaged agreement.

Example Workshop Exercise (This exercise emphasizes the increasing importance of virtual teams and technology based interactions.)

Exercise: Decision-Making at a distance

Distance decision-making is becoming more and more common as organizations try to reduce costs and maximize employee efficiency.
However, these new approaches, supported by high-speed Internet and telecommunications capability, add new factors to the decision-making process:
What happens when we can all think in private and then make our opinions known?
What happens when we can see decisions evolving as each long distance participant weighs in with their opinions?

Potential Discussion Questions:

What signs (non-verbal as well verbal) do you notice in face-to-face meetings that suggest whether members are in agreement or not in agreement with a proposal?
What special challenges does this form of communication and group decision-making pose?
What are some of the key differences that you’ve experienced between face-to-face meetings and distance discussions when decision-making?
Are trips to Abilene more or less likely in this decision-making mode? Why?
Does this form of decision-making offer potential advantages?
What might they be, and how can they be optimized?
How can we as a group do a better job of “virtual” decision-making? 

We will use this discussion to help participants develop methods to make honest and open decisions in teleconference, email, or groupware environments.


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