Abilene Parable

In his 1988 book, Professor Jerry Harvey of George Washington University developed a parable of real life to describe how people believe they have reached agreement.

The story is about four adults – a married couple and the wife’s parents – who are relaxing on a porch in 104 degree heat in the small town of Cole- man, Texas, around 53 miles from Abilene. They are relaxing, drinking lemonade, and occasionally playing a game of dominoes.

The wife’s father suggests they drive to Abilene to eat at the cafeteria. While the son-in-law thinks the idea is a crazy one, he goes along with it, as do the two women. They get in their car, which does not have air conditioning, and drive through a dust storm to Abilene.

They eat a mediocre lunch and return to Coleman exhausted, hot, and generally unhappy with the experience.

When they are home, it is revealed that none of them wanted to go to Abilene. Each of them was going along because they thought the others wanted to go.

Again, this is a fascinating parable that illustrates UGRs that commonly exist in work environments.

Translated into a work context, the following UGRs could be operating:

  • Around here, positive group dynamics are most important. Anyone who disagrees does not have the group’s best interests at heart, and is trying to ruin positive group dynamics
  • Around here, if the boss wants something done, it’s best not to disagree
  • Around here, action – any action – is better than nothing