That July afternoon in Coleman, Texas was particularly hot — 104 degrees according to the Walgreen’s Rexall’s thermometer. In addition, the wind was blowing fine-grained Texas topsoil through the house. But the afternoon was still tolerable; even potentially enjoyable. A fan was stirring the air on the back porch; there was cold lemonade; and finally, there was entertainment. Dominoes. Perfect for the conditions. The game requires little more physical exertion than an occasional mumbled comment, “Shuffle ‘em,” and an unhurried movement of the arm to place the tiles in their appropriate positions on the table. All in all, it had the makings of an agreeable Sunday afternoon in Coleman. That is, until my father-in-law suddenly said, “Let’s get in the car and go to Abilene and have dinner at the cafeteria.”
I thought, “What, go to Abilene? Fifty-three miles? In this dust storm and heat? And in an unconditioned 1958 Buick?”
But my wife chimed in with, “Sounds like a great idea. I’d like to go. How about you Jerry?” Since my own preferences were out of step with the rest, I replied, “Sounds good to me,” and added, “I just hope your mother wants to go.”
“Of course I want to go,” said my mother-in-law. “I haven’t been to Abilene in a long time.”
So into the car and off to Abilene we went. My predictions were fulfilled. The heat was brutal. Perspiration had cemented a fine layer of dust to our skin by the time we arrived. The cafeteria’s food could serve as a first-rate prop in an antacid commercial.
Some four hours and 106 miles later, we returned to Coleman, hot and exhausted. We silently sat in front of the fan for a long time. Then, to be sociable and to break the silence, I dishonestly said, “It was a great trip, wasn’t it?”
No one spoke.
Finally, my mother-in-law said, with some irritation, “Well, to tell you the truth, I really didn’t enjoy it much and would rather have stayed here. I just went along because the three of you were so enthusiastic about going. I wouldn’t have gone if you all hadn’t pressured me into it.”
I couldn’t believe it. “What do you mean ‘you’all?” I said. Don’t put me in the ‘you’all’ group. I was delighted to be doing what we were doing. I didn’t want to go. I only went to satisfy the rest of you. You’re the culprits.”
My wife looked shocked. “Don’t call me a culprit. You and Daddy and Mama were the ones who wanted to go. I just went along to keep you happy. I would have had to be crazy to go out in heat like that.”
Her father entered the conversation with one word: “Shee-it.” He then expanded on what was already clear: “Listen, I never wanted to go to Abilene. I just thought you might be bored. You visit so seldom I just wanted to be sure you enjoyed it. I would have preferred to play another game of dominoes and eat the leftovers in the icebox.”
After the outburst of incrimination, we all sat back in silence. Here we were, four reasonably sensible people who — of our own volition — had just taken a 106-mile trip across a godforsaken desert in furnace-like heat and a dust storm to eat unpalatable food at a hole-in-the-wall cafeteria in Abilene, when none of us had really wanted to go. To be concise, we’d done just the opposite of what we wanted to do. The whole situation simply didn’t make sense.
— Jerry Harvey, The Abilene Paradox and Other Meditations on Management.
My first exposure to this story was as I was unknowingly about to experience it…
Three colleagues and I were all out-of-towners in Memphis for business. After a stressful day at work we had just had a nice dinner. While leaving the restaurant Don suggested “You guys want to continue our discussion while we drive around Memphis a bit? Jude responded with a lukewarm “okay;” I said I’m up for it, even though I was tired and wanted some down time. Then mild-mannered, soft-spoken Laura chimed in with “sounds like we might be taking a trip to Abilene …”
I didn’t get the reference.
Thankfully, Don knew exactly what she meant, and we went back to our respective hotel rooms for the evening.
The lesson never has left me.
That might be because I have since seen teams of smart and committed people going on their own trips to Abilene… and some of these teams included me. None of them, quite obviously, included Laura.
Yes; I have been in Abilene-bound meetings and I have been on Abilene-bound teams. Have you as well? Have you seen some of these trips being taken, and perhaps you might admit your participation as well? … Odd, isn’t it?
Odd, unsatisfying, and unhelpful.
There’s a powerful social dynamic at play here. I need to bone up on what exactly that is, but, for now, I just know that I do not want to take any more trips to Abilene.
I need to take a trip and find Laura… or, I need to become Laura.