January 17, 2018
Avoid the Abilene Paradox
by Dr. K J John
It is rather obvious to all Merdeka Malaysians that the groupthink phenomenon is the same reason why our corrupt government of the day has lost its moral audacity to what is good, true, and right.–Kj John
THERE is a false worldview permeating mainstream Malaysia. It assumes that all authority and power resides only at the top of the hierarchy and there is no distinction between delegated authority and absolute power.
All office holders’ are accountable for policy advice given while moving in the hierarchy of decision-making; formal responsibility belongs to all those within a top team of actors.
Therefore, I fully agree with Zaid Ibrahim’s argument that the 1988 judicial crisis was the responsibility of the entire “top hierarchy of leadership of the government of the day” with no single individual being assigned all or full blame now.
Primus Inter Pares
These are the Latin words which mean, first among equals. Unlike the Presidential system, we are a Parliamentary system without full executive authority to one man. We have clear but separated system of checks and balances, but which has been much abused over the many years. We must all accept full responsibility for this malaise, and thereby we get the government we choose and deserve.
President Dwight David Eisenhower (from Abilene, Kansas) recognised the limits of Presidential Power and the dangers of the military-industrial complex
When an entire organisation willingly and voluntarily colludes with such a “momentum of the day,” it is almost always almost a repeat of the Cuban Missile Crisis incident when John F Kennedy (JFK) nearly used his nuclear option on Cuba. In the language of my late Professor Jerry B Harvey, our entire nation-state and all its leaders may have categorically taken a ‘Trip to Abilene!’
Before Abilene Paradox became a managerial concept, let us consider the other equally, if not older, popular concept of groupthink.
This column ( source: https://probe.org/jfk-and- groupthink-lessons- in-decision- making/) seeks to articulate and learn from two specific examples related to the phenomena vide: the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, i.e. an attempt to invade Cuba and overthrow Fidel Castro which became a fiasco, and the resultant 1962 Cuban missile crisis which saw the world come perilously close to nuclear war.
Yale social psychologist Irving Janis studied both the Cuban episodes carefully and concluded that often decision-makers are blinded by their own needs for self-esteem they get from being an accepted member of a socially important insiders group.
Therefore, their inherent fear of shattering the warm feelings of perceived unanimity – or, of rocking their boat — is what kept some of Kennedy’s advisors from objecting to the Bay of Pigs plan before it was too late.
After that huge blunder, JFK revamped his decision-making process to encourage dissent and critical evaluation among his team (I call this agreeing to disagree, agreeably). In the following Cuban missile crisis, virtually the same policymakers however produced superior results.
“Groupthink” was the term Janis used for the phenomenon of flawed group dynamics that can let bad ideas go unchallenged and can sometimes yield disastrous outcomes. The original version of Mahathirism can also be labelled the same, or a similar phenomenon.
Symptoms of groupthink include:
- Illusions of invulnerability: “No one can defeat us.”
- Belief in the group’s inherent morality: “We can do no wrong.”
- Rationalising away serious problems: “Danger signs? What danger signs?”
- Stereotyping the opposition: “Those guys are too dumb or too weak to worry about.”
- Illusions of unanimity: “Members who keep silent probably agree with the ones who speak out.”
- Pressuring dissenters: “Look, are you a team player or not?”
The Abilene Paradox
In the original Abilene paradox storyline, it involved a group of family members of Jerry B Harvey who collectively decide on a course of action that is counter to the preferences of many, or all of the individuals in the group. These members, unlike Kennedy’s advisors, do not have any formal role specifications but operate only as an informal group of adult equals.
This phenomenon therefore usually involves a breakdown in group communication by which, each member mistakenly believes that their own preferences are counter to the groups and, therefore, do not raise objections.
Most keep silent with wrong assumptions. Harvey sometimes calls it “the inability to manage the implicit and silent agreement!”
One common phrase describing the Abilene Paradox is their desire to not “rock the boat”. This however differs from groupthink in that the Abilene paradox is characterised by an inability to manage agreement.
Whereas in the Groupthink phenomenon, while the players assume their formal role as advisors, they choose not to assume the full weight of role-actions, as they each took no personal responsibility for their individual non-action or failure to speak up and out. That was fully abdicated to the President of the US, and his executive authority.
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 (Yoon Ho 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.
Direction for Malaysia
Najib Razak–the Corrupt Abuser of Power with his cronies
Our Prime Minister (Najib Razak) is always only a first among equals but often falsely assumes he is the real boss, and found uncanny ways, to bribe or shut up differing views of others. What I am most shocked about however are the colluding “smaller parties of non-Malay groups” who willingly take this trip to Abilene. I say, shame on all of them.–Kj John
I argued that, we the Rakyat Malaysia who hold the real currency to define true our real democratic values must correct the misdirection of this nation-state. But, we must make that dissatisfaction loud and clear. We must vote out this corrupt and incompetent regime.
Management theory and organisational literature support what and how we can do it. Much like in the Abilene Trip we will otherwise become the Harvey relatives who take the Trip to Abilene.
It is rather obvious to all Merdeka Malaysians that the groupthink phenomenon is the same reason why our corrupt government of the day has lost its moral audacity to what is good, true, and right.
Unlike JFK’s authority and power, our Prime Minister is always only a first among equals but often falsely assumes he is the real boss, and found uncanny ways, to bribe or shut up differing views of others. What I am most shocked about however are the colluding “smaller parties of non-Malay groups” who willingly take this trip to Abilene. I say, shame on all of them.
But, as per Harvey’s Abilene Paradox argues, all registered voters must now speak about the wrong direction of our nation-state. Then surely we can avoid the Trip to Abilene and then, after that fact-blaming of others, but never ourselves, for the destruction of our nation-state. – January 15, 2017.
* KJ John worked in public service for 32 years, retired, and started an NGO for which he is Chairman of the Board. He writes to inform and educate, arguing for integration with integrity in Malaysia. He believes such a transformation has to start with the mind before it sinks into the heart!