How often do you think to yourself that you are not like everyone else and that your thoughts are not influenced by those around you? Well, you might be surprised that we can all fall into paradoxes such as ‘Groupthink’ and ‘Abilene Paradox’ without even realising it.
From time after time we see that even the most sophisticated teams fail as a result of poor team dynamics. We, humans, are still the most important resource in any project and it is important to appropriately manage this resource in a manner that is beneficial to us and the project we are working on. In teams, effective communication is a key contributor for successful functionality of groups. Groupthink and Abilene Paradox are two group conditions, if unmanaged, can have detrimental impact to a team’s performance.
Groupthink is defined as “a mode of thinking of people when they are deeply involved in a cohesive group. When the member’s are strivings for unanimity and they override their own motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action“(Anonymous, 2009). With groupthink, the individuals are unaware of that the team’s decision is wrong or risky.
Abilene Paradox, on the other hand, is when groups make ineffective decisions that are contrary to what each of the group members individually believe because they don’t want to ‘rock the boat’ (McAvoy & Butler 2007). The individuals are aware that a decision taken by the team is wrong or risky but do not voice their concerns due to action anxiety (Harvey 1988).
Groupthink and Abilene Paradox are similar but they are two separate group conditions. Below are symptoms for differentiating between Groupthink and Abilene Paradox.
Harvey (1988) identified six symptoms associated with the Abilene Paradox:
- The individuals in a group privately assess the problem they are facing.
- The individuals in a group come up with the steps that would be required to address the problem, however the team members do this individually, to themselves.
- The team members fail to accurately communicate their individual desires and beliefs to one another within the group. In fact, they do the opposite and thus mislead each other.
- With invalid and inaccurate information, the team members make group decisions that lead counterproductive outcomes.
- As a result of counterproductive outcomes, the team members experience frustration, anger, irritation and dissatisfaction. Consequently, blame occurs and the team become ineffective (Yoonho 2001, 173).
- Finally, if the team fails to resolve the issue, the cycle repeats itself with much greater intensity. In an organisational environment this could damage the business intensely.
Harvey et al (2004) identified seven symptoms associated with groupthink:
- There is a strong lead and a strong organisational culture.
- The group overestimate itself and creates the illusion that the group is invulnerable.
- There is little to no conflict or debate within the group.
- There is close mindedness with lack of diversity and pluralistic perspective.
- There is pressure for uniformity.
- The appointment of a leader (Harvey et al., 2004) in the group can trigger action anxiety to individuals. No one dares to question the leader publicly.
- Finally, the development of a ‘spiral of silence’ where an individual’s perception of the majority opinion suppresses their willingness to share challenging questions.
Table 1 – Comparison between Abilene Paradox and Groupthink
Variable / Conditions
|Group Cohesiveness||Fragmented cohesive||Highly cohesive|
|Leadership Style||Incompetent/non-existent||Strong leadership or hierarchy but lack of impartial leadership|
|Awareness||Individuals are aware the decision taken may be wrong or risky||Individuals are unaware of the risks and opportunity costs of associated decision|
|External threats or environment||None||Yes, external competition and associated prestige|
|Initial Individual responses to a given decision||Individuals feel despair and hesitant; uncertain; slow response||Individuals feel high level of morale; quick replies; euphoria|
|Individual emotions at the time of decision making||Frustration, dissent, powerlessness, pain, anger||Group euphoria|
|Individual condition at the time of decision making||Dilemma of own view versus misperceived collective reality||No dilemma as individuals are preoccupied by illusions of invulnerability and unanimity|
|Individual perceptions on the results of the decision||Negative; pessimistic view||Positive; hopeful|
|Post-outcome actions||Other group members are blamed for the ineffective decision made||Leaders will take the blame for the ineffective decision made but everyone contributed to the situation|
|Stage of the group||Low energy; pessimistic||High energy; euphoric; optimistic|
At the commencement of any teamwork, typically natural leaders quickly dominate the decision-making. However an effective leader or a project manager should intervene and encouraged all team members to contribute towards decision-making. Abilene paradox is typically observed at the start of teamwork as the team had not fully formed and the team members suffer from action anxiety, negative risk fantasies, and separation anxiety, which are some of the theories that underlie Abilene Paradox (Harvey 1988). An effective team leader or a project manager should attempt to overcome Abilene paradox by asking everyone to contribute. For instance, an around the table type of conversation can allow an opportunity for all individuals to contribute. With Abilene paradox individuals do not contradict the team decisions even when they know the decisions were wrong. Mohan (2009) also stated that an individual voicing their viewpoints is crucial for good results in any team environment.
Successfully completing one or more tasks or projects together as a team can lead a team to become more cohesive. Consequently it is normal to notice that a lot of the members having similar thought patterns as teamwork continues and having fewer disagreements. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Minor disagreements suggested that team members were being innovative and thinking about the problem from different angles. If on the other hand, the team members collectively agree on one decision for most or all of the problems this may be a bad thing. Yoonho (2001) explained that collective agreements in groups indicated a high level of groupthink. This may be a sign of high level of group cohesion, which sometimes results in weaknesses in individual judgement. This can lead to defective decision-making (Yoonho 2001).
Team members who are affected by Abilene paradox typically appear more pessimistic and negative while team members who are affected by groupthink generally appear more hopeful, positive and energetic.
Groupthink and Abilene Paradox can be prevented and overcome. Confrontation for individuals for ideas can help overcome Abilene Paradox while inviting new ideas from people outside a team can overcome groupthink. Occasionally asking an outsider’s input for decision-making can assist overcome groupthink. The detrimental effects of these group processes will reflect on the outcomes so it is imperative these group conditions are managed effectively to achieve desired outcomes.
So next time be mindful of your own thoughts and decision making. Recognise that you might be influenced by those around you more than you think. Also, speak your mind, even if you don’t think others will approve because the chances are they are thinking it anyway.
- Anonymous (2009), http://www.fitting-in.com/drafts/1%20groupthink.doc
- Harvey, J.B. (1988), The Abilene Paradox: The Management of Agreement, Organizational Dynamics, 17(1), pp.17-43.
- Harvey, M., Novicevic, M.M., Buckley, M.R. and Halbesleben, J.R., (2004), The Abilene Paradox After Thirty Years: -A Global Perspective, Organizational Dynamics,2(33), pp. 215-226.
- McAvoy, J. and Butler, L. (2007), The Impact of the Abilene Paradox on Double-Loop Learning in an Agile Team, Information and Software Technology, 49(6), pp. 552-563.
- Mohan, J. (2009), When Groups Don’t Think, http://www.utne.com/science-and-technology/when-groups-dont-think.aspx.
- Yoonho, K. (2001), A Comparative Study of the “Abilene Paradox” and “Groupthink”, Public Administration Quarterly, 25(2), pp.168-189.
- Picture credit: http://www.barrycarter.co/groupthink/