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Recovering From the Abilene Paradox

Ramez Hanna

Leadership consultant at Eneba

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Problem

For a big project we were preparing to launch, my team was set on planning and designing the architecture changes for our service. I had gone on vacation and while I was gone the team collectively made some decisions. However, those decisions were not well placed within the context of our company. There ended up being major blackages, the design did not pass, and the team was inevitably upset with a low morale.

Actions taken

The team's reaction did not reflect the thoughts of the individual. In fact, each individual person thought the decisions made were not the best. Each one thought that we should have made different choices but no one wanted to go against the team. The team as a whole resisted the correct verdict. This was a classic case the 'Abilene Paradox', which refers to a situation when a group makes a collective decision that is counter to the thoughts and feelings of its individual members. The paradox occurs because individuals do not want to 'rock the boat' or 'be a killjoy,' even though their perceptions of the other members' feelings are incorrect. To remedy the situation, I conducted one-on-ones with each team member, getting their individual feedback. After, I had a meeting with the whole team explaining my findings. They comprehended the paradox and agreed in goodwill to rethink the team's decision. In the end, we republished the design. This time it was a success.

Lessons learned

  • A manager needs to cultivate an environment where team members are not afraid to rock the boat.
  • Fall back to individual discussions when there is doubt about a decision the team has made. Give team members a safe space to voice their differing views.
  • In such cases when major decisions are made, the manager's role is to make sure the team is focused on the vision and the reasons why they are making those decisions.

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Ramez Hanna

Leadership consultant at Eneba


Leadership DevelopmentCommunicationOrganizational StrategyDecision MakingCulture DevelopmentLeadership TrainingFeedback TechniquesIndividual Contributor RolesLeadership RolesTeam & Project Management

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