Michael Grey’s Notes: the Abilene Paradox


by Michael Grey.
November 2023.

Going along to get along.

You may know that I have landed unexpectedly and feet first in the land of pipe bands. Where, say, this past summer I was on the periphery – a listener, a judge, a toe-tapping outsider – this autumn sees me back in the fray, in the middle of a great bunch of pipers and drummers: a pipe band.

It seems at almost every band practice I’m reminded of all the good things a pipe band gives its members: a place to create and play music, a social outlet and, on that, lots of laughing. I can’t think of a similar situation in my experience that is quite like the banter and jesting at a good pipe band practice. It’s the rare – and invariably crappy – pipe band practice with no craic. I think, in part, it’s a band’s shared goals and a sort of tribal sense of team that fires up repartee. That and just the sheer fun of having a good belly laugh amongst chanters, sticks and the friends attached to them.

In pipe band leadership I’m also reminded of a few things: Pipe Majors are under-paid and there are decisions to make at every turn of the drones. It’s true, as some wise person said, that you can’t make progress without making a decision. It’s equally true that making decisions is not always easy. Beware of those who say otherwise. Think of the Butterfly effect, the idea that small changes can make large differences (as in a tornado being born from the flapping of a distant butterfly’s wings weeks before the storm). We have to get on with it but with care in deciding what’s what. After all, as Mark Twain so wisely said, “good decisions come from experience. Experience comes from making bad decisions.” And to the later, well, I know about them.

Simon Sinek, the well-known author and business leadership thinker said, “one of the best paradoxes of leadership is a leader’s need to be both stubborn and open-minded. A leader must insist on sticking to the vision and stay on course to the destination. But he must be open-minded during the process.”

I imagine that it is fair to say that a pipe band is not a democracy. The band may vote on “Indian” or “Chinese” for their Christmas night out but to make the thing – the band – work it’s not all that practical to continually look to the voting booth. In Sinek’s paradox of leadership, I think of two things: the paradox itself and the challenge of “staying the course” with an open mind.

To the paradox. A funny word. It almost sounds like a prescription drug. Of course, as the good people at Cambridge tell us, it’s a statement or situation that may be true but seems impossible or difficult to understand because it contains two opposite facts or characteristics. Think of Socrates’ statement relating to the idea that the more you learn, the more you realize how little you know. Or the paradox of the self-fulfilling prophecy: the more you’re afraid to fail the more likely you will.

It is in Sinek’s statement relating to the importance of staying the course with an open mind that I ran face-first into a paradox of a different kind. In this small instance, involving the team in music selection – a standard practice in most bands, I’d say – we – the whole band – encountered what, in hindsight, is a fascinating example of group behaviour.

I give you, the Abilene Paradox.

In 1974, Jerry B. Harvey, an American management educator, published a paper related to group agreement. He called it “the Abilene paradox.” His thinking centres around the belief that people in groups can often go along with a decision they think the group wants even when they don’t like the idea. It’s a situation where members go along with a decision to avoid upsetting the apple cart even though the opinions of the group, in reality, conform with their own.

The remarkably unexceptional situation that spurred Harvey’s paper is worthy of mention. It underscores the possible ubiquity of this particular paradox.

On a hot July afternoon in Coleman, Texas the author and his wife were visiting her parents. when his father-in-law suggested a drive to Abilene for dinner – a 106 mile return trip. The author didn’t much like the idea with the day so hot and the car without air-conditioning. He kept his thoughts to himself as his wife said, “Sounds like a great idea. I’d like to go. How about you, Jerry?” Thinking he was the only one who felt this way he agreed, adding , “I just hope your mother wants to go.” His mother-in-law pronounced she most certainly wanted to go.

The four of them made the long drive to Abilene. The heat was oppressive. The food was poor. The drive dusty.

When they arrived home the author sarcastically said, “It was a great trip, wasn’t it?”. And then the group’s truth came out. His mother-in-law would “rather have stayed here”. His father-in-law said he had never wanted to go and only suggested the trip as he thought everyone was bored. His wife said she agreed to go as it seemed everyone wanted to go to Abilene.

Think of the Abilene paradox in your own lives, and how common it might be. In a pipe band context I imagine it happens not infrequently. The instance I am thinking of is that of a band member pitching a tune to the band (in this case one of their compositions). The score is produced, the tune is played. Silence. Then someone says, maybe to break the silence – or – to genuinely express their feelings, “I love it!”. A few comments of support come out and – boom – new tune in repertoire. Or not. In this case, one of the seasoned members speaks up at the end of the practice – in a not-so-diplomatic way: “what about that new tune? I %$#ing hate it”. These comments produced a reaction of some quiet agreement – and at least one bruised ego.

People, I imagine, don’t speak up for a lot of different reasons: fear of conflict, indifference, fear of not being seen to agree with the team as a whole and groupthink, where people might imagine the group as a whole knows best. Whatever the reason it’s clear to me that sometimes consensus of opinion can be not all that helpful in achieving a group’s best outcome – and, instances beyond music selection, can have unpleasant consequences.

On the piper who offered up the tune I could empathise. “I’ve been there,” I told them. And then, it struck me. The terrible possibility that my tunes might have been played – or are played – only thanks to group circumstances that spurred the Abilene paradox.

Oh well. It’s not like anyone’s harmed (too much)!

Mike Grey became Pipe Major of 78th Fraser Highlanders in September 2023, and he teaches, judges, writes and publishes bagpipe musicHis Grey’s Notes series ran in Piping Today magazine for ten years. His book is available in the UK from thebagpipeshop.co.uk.