Who Wants a Ticket to Abilene? (Hint: You Don’t) – Part I

Jack H. (Nick) McCall*
Tennessee Valley Authority
Knoxville, Tennessee

Many years ago, I watched a training session by a management expert named Jerry B. Harvey, titled “The Abilene Paradox.” The premise behind the theory that he propounded was established by a sort of family fable. On a blazing-hot summer day in a small Texas town, a family is sitting on their front porch when the father-in-law suddenly exclaims: “Hey, let’s go to Abilene for dinner tonight.” Abilene is a long way away, especially for a family dinner. The wife, wanting to be nice to her dad but not really wanting to go anywhere in the heat, says “That sounds great, Dad.” Her husband has his inner doubts but, not wanting to disappoint his wife or irritate his father-in-law, adds “Sure thing; I just hope your mother wants to go.” The mother-in-law retorts: “Of course, I want to go; I haven’t been to Abilene in years!” They all pile into the (un-air-conditioned) family car and make the long, hot, dusty trek to Abilene. The food at the diner the father-in-law suggested is about as awful as the drive itself. Everyone in the miserable group silently thinks to himself or herself: “The food here is lousy; this trip is dreadful. Why did ever I say ‘yes’? How did we get here?”

After they get home near midnight, and one of the family members hypocritically blurts out, “It was a great trip, wasn’t it?”, the truth spills out. The mother-in-law says that she really just wanted to stay at home, except that everyone else seemed so enthused to go; she didn’t want to “rock the boat.” The husband tells his wife that he only went to keep everybody else happy. The wife replies: “I just went along to keep you happy. You’d be crazy to want to go out into heat like that!” The father-in-law then says that he only mentioned going to Abilene because he thought everybody else was bored.

So, the family has taken a trip that none of them wanted to take, to a place where none of them really wanted to go, going along only to avoid conflict or not hurt the others’ feelings, when they all would have been just fine staying home. Welcome to the “Abilene Paradox.”

Dr. Harvey presented examples of this syndrome—what he called the “Abilene Paradox in action in the boardroom, the bedroom, and the Oval Office.” Of the three scenarios he described in his circa-1986 talk, his Oval Office example is the one that is still remembered today. Harvey aptly depicted the atmosphere in the Nixon administration that led to the Watergate break-in, when numerous members of Nixon’s staff later admitted that they had strong dislikes and doubts about what was being proposed by the President but, out of fear of group pressure, they did not stand up for their concerns.

What Dr. Harvey was driving at was the situation where otherwise rational, thoughtful people arrive at or support a false consensus, often simply from fear of speaking out. In groups that place a high premium on consensus and “going along to get along”—even if that is only a perception, not necessarily an articulated cultural expectation—the Abilene Paradox can be a very real risk, with real consequences far worse than ending up at an overheated, crummy diner in Abilene, Texas.

The paradox is related to psychologist Irving Janis’ theory of “groupthink,” in which a desire for group harmony leads to irrational or dysfunctional decision-making and outcomes. Unlike groupthink, where people adopt an irrational or “stupid” choice or take an action entirely contrary to their true desires or best interests, yet still feel good about the bad choice they have reached—in the Abilene Paradox, the participants do not feel good at all about the choice in question that they are about to make. However, they do it anyway, principally to avoid perceptions that they are creating or contributing to conflict.

Most lawyers would probably like to think that we are immune to situations that will cause us to take a trip to Abilene. We know full well that the practice of law is not a popularity contest—not only with our adversaries but also with our peers and office colleagues. We know that give-and-take and frank, honest debate is what is expected of lawyers; certainly, those lawyers who vie in the courtroom know that judges expect nothing less. But, are lawyers necessarily any better protected from the Abilene Paradox and groupthink? I don’t think that we can conclude that is the case.

Drawing on Dr. Harvey’s “Abilene Paradox in action in the boardroom,” each of us can likely recall far too many examples—some, dredged up for all to see in the falls of Enron and HealthSouth—where otherwise rational, thoughtful lawyers went along with spectacularly flawed corporate decisions and, in fact, contributed to or supported them by dint of their legal acumen. The implosion of several once name-brand national law firms over the last fifteen years can also seem to have featured too many internal decisions that bore all the hallmarks of the paradox or groupthink.

It seems that BigLaw partners and general counsel might not necessarily be any more immune to the siren song of the Abilene Paradox than were former corporate executives named Fastow, Lay or Scrushy. Each of us can think of too many other lawyers in recent memory who allowed themselves to be co-opted into signing off on legally questionable (in some cases, criminal) actions for various reasons that manifest a fairly clear demonstration of the Abilene Paradox in action in the law office.

So, how to avoid buying a ticket for a long, hot, dusty ride to Abilene? That will be the topic of part II of this series.

* The opinions and viewpoints contained in the article are those of the author and are not to be imputed to his employer or the United States government.

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