The Abilene Paradox And The Collective Action Problem Are Both Cut From The Same Cloth

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This observation may be self-evident or even shallow, however, the Abilene Paradox is nothing more than the complete opposite of the Collective Action Problem. Both concepts demonstrate the pitfalls of the decision-making process but embody the extreme ends of the distribution. One demonstrates the follies of too much agreement in the decision-making process and the other details the difficulties of coordinating action when there are dissenting opinions and interests. These conceptions of the difficulties of managing agreement and disagreement provide us with the precepts to navigate the traps that impede effectual action.

In the Abilene Paradox, we drive towards disaster choices due to no one wanting to be the voice of dissent. The Collective Action Problem details how disagreement can paralyze us in the decision-making process which will immobilize the entire group from acting. Through understanding how to navigate these speedbumps in reaching unanimity will help us more efficiently coordinate various forms of group decision-making. Each of these concepts is applicable in a diverse number of settings ranging from the arenas of public policy, the boardroom, and even in the bedroom. I consent and or agreement is required it is imperative that everyone is on the same page. Not just merely trying to appease one another or being too bellicose and unwilling to compromise.

Why more theorists and management experts have not compared and contrasted these prevalent “agreement traps” is perplexing. However, from a superficial standpoint, one is nothing more than the inverted version of the other. The major difference between the two is most like the conditions under which both arise. These reciprocals may be linked a demonstrating the same problem, however, the defining variable that influences economic agents to either excessive amounts of agreement or following their divergent interests are likely context contingent. Contextual attributes such as incentives, personalities, external costs, penalties, cultural norms, societal affiliations, etc. can sway actors towards committing one of these fallacies over another. Neither of these challenges in the bargaining or agreement process yields optimal results, even us with either poor decision or incapacitated by inaction. Whether you are managing a nation, a company or a household all of these societal structures represent graduations in the scale of decision-making units. Making them susceptible to either over agreement or paucity of agreement, either is detrimental to all parties involved.

It is difficult to ascertain if a “golden-mean” can be found in striking the right degree of agreement. Again, what would strike the right ratio of consent-to-descent is highly contextually based. Choosing the wrong ice cream flavor does not carry the same magnitude of consequences as bombing the wrong country (hypothetically this is not an appeal for a hawkish foreign policy). The stakes are much higher in the latter example than in the first example of a decision gone wrong. A lot of this can be resolved through the constitutional basis for decision-making. In other words, what set of rules are established governing the initiation of choices. The seminal text of Public Choice Theory, The Calculus of Consent (1962) loosely defines constitutional decision-making as being any set of rules (two or more) governing the decision-making process. These rules do not need to be formally codified nor do they need to extend beyond a single person to be constitutional. Any means of quelling the concerns of group members of the fence can secure unanimity, whether it be through persuasion or compensation/ lessening of any external costs imposed on them can settle a disagreement. The role of the compensation would have to be implied in the rules guiding decision-making. Much how the articulation of opposition needs to be tolerated from group members to avoid an agreement for a course of action everyone knew would be calamitous. All because the group members want to conform to what they perceived was the desired action of the group. Anyone in leadership needs to have a tacit or formal understanding with their subordinates or constituents that constructive criticism is welcomed. If not you may be taking a long ride to Abilene!

Gresham’s Law Applied to Human Capital- Career Stagnation

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The premise behind Gresham’s Law is that money of a higher intrinsic value will be hoarded while the money of a lower substantive value but legally recognized as having the same nominal value will be circulated throughout the economy. Succinctly put, “..bad money drives out good money…” pithily sums up this economic phenomenon. However, is this occurrence solely confined to the commodity of money? Doesn’t the observations convey in Gresham’s Law applicable to other goods? For example, unless a baseball card collect is presented with an astronomically large monetary offer, odds are they will be unwilling to part with a limited-run rookie card of a legendary major league player. This scenario reflects many of the assumptions regarding commodity value implicit in Gresham’s Law. Generally, rare collectibles are held on to, while mass-produced memorabilia is readily available at the local garage sale or swap meet. Most collectors will hang on to the items that are considered valuable unless another interested party can provide a commodity in exchange that exceeds the perceived value of the collectible held by the hobbyist in possession of the coveted item.

However, how does Gresham’s Law interact with the intangible commodity of human capital? A firm or a business unit within a firm would want to retain top-level talent and let go of the mediocre/poor performers. Before we can delve into this analysis we must distinguish what human capital is. Human capital is the economic value that the employee brings to the firm. Typically through their experience, education, certifications, knowledge of company procedures and policies, position-specific “tribal knowledge”, critical thinking skills, and other pertinent soft skills. For readers who have never worked in a corporate environment before tribal knowledge is the informal and unwritten knowledge of best practices of how to perform within a specific job role. It stands to reason that a potential employee possessing all of these attributes would be a hot commodity on the job market. If currently employed by a company would be an employee of a high value.

If human capital is valued in a similar sense to other commodities such as money, how do businesses act in a manner to retain this high-quality talent? The answer most human resources representatives would give is that their organization creates an environment that fosters career advancement. Stressing the perks such as tuition reimbursement, possession of company stock options, and opportunities for placement in vertical job positions. While these factors may play a role in some employees choosing to work long-term for the same company, there is another variable that HR will not be forthright about. That is oftentimes exceptional employees with a high degree of human capital end up getting pigeonholed to the same role. Oftentimes these individuals are blocked from transferring to other business units or positions within the company by the request of middle and executive management. The reason behind limiting this MVP’s potential is quite pragmatic, the business unit cannot afford to lose this individual. Their skills and knowledge are essential to the day-to-day operations of the business. It would be nearly impossible to fill the void if they were to get promoted or transition to a lateral position within the firm. In the corporate world, this individual may be referred to as a subject matter expert or colloquially known as a SME.

It should be noted that the desperate attempts of management to relegate this individual to the same job role has the propensity to backfire. Why? Because this individual gets fed up with their limited job prospects and ends seeking career advancement at another firm. In a free market for employment, a high-quality employee has many prospective options when it comes to their career. If a firm stubbornly, confines them to a shallow career path they will simply look for employment at another company.

Machiavelli In the Office- A Career Advancement Guide (Part-1)

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Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince is arguably one of the most important books ever written. It is often speculated to be one of the first written works of political philosophy. It dropped us down from the lofty cloud of idealist virtue to the Earthly necessity of hard-nosed pragmatism. Straying from the idealized conceptions of Plato’s Republic and Aristotelian “right-reason”.  It is not enough to behave virtuously, but we must also have virtuous intentions. It because evident how such principles can impede effective leadership. Machiavelli was concerned with results making him to some extent a forerunner for . He catapulted us into the era of modern philosophy. An acknowledgment of what is versus what should be. An acknowledgment of the true nature of man in contrast to what man could be. Such deep insights are not without a price. Few thinkers have been as universally misrepresented and villainized as Machiavelli.  Often reduced to a cartoon caricature.


A book spanning less than 200-pages rarely has many insightful observations embedded in it as The Prince. Few books are as nuanced as The Prince contributing to the wide array of misinterpretations. Most of us would prefer to live under governments far more liberal than a highly centralized principality. That does not mean the advice in Machiavelli’s most well-known work doesn’t apply to modern politics. The observations made in The Prince applies to any organization with a social hierarchy. Meaning its applicability extends the bloodstained floors of the Florentine royal court. The wisdom presented in The Prince can easily be applied to the boardroom as well as the political arena. I would contend that many of the principles that encompass the Machiavellian brand of political philosophy can be applied in the office. That’s right, you can utilize these same tactics at work.  Here we will embark upon a series of applying the political lessons from Machiavelli to the workplace.


The first lesson of we can draw from Machiavelli to apply to our work life, it is more important to appear virtuous than to be virtuous. Keeping up appearances. What your actual motives are for making friendly small talk with your co-workers or subordinates is inconsequential to the outcome. Similar in politics, it doesn’t matter if you follow through with your campaign promises. The “say-do gap” can be mended by high voter approval ratings. If the voting public has a high opinion of you it isn’t necessary to be effective. The same can be said at work. Even if you are the hardest worker in your department you could be passed for a promotion if you appear to be unsociable. The consequences of having cultivated such a bad reputation is difficult to correct. To some extent, image is everything.  This is a sentiment that is echoed throughout The Prince.


Thus, leaving  out what is imagined about a prince and discussing what is true, I say that all men whenever one speaks of them, and especially princes, since they are placed higher, are noted for some of the qualities that bring them either praise or blame. … someone cruel, one merciful… the one honest, the other clever… And I know that everyone will confess that it would be laudable thing to find a prince with all of the above mentioned qualities  that are held good. But because we cannot have them,  nor wholly observe them, since human conditions do not permit it. (Machiavelli, 1532, P. 61-62. Trans. Mansfield 1985) [1].


And one of the most powerful remedies that a prince has against conspiracies is not to be hated by the people . (Machiavelli, 1532, P. 72. Trans. Mansfield 1985) [2].


Both quotes exemplify how appearing to be good is more important than being good. There are a lot of admirable characteristics that you want to display to your co-workers. You want to appear smart, creative, reliable, friendly, interesting, enterprising, etc. The probability of one person possessing all these attributes is slim. Making it a necessity to pretend to have these attributes. Which is imperative if you are seeking career advancement. The idiom of “faking it until you make it” is central to this whole idea. This is why oftentimes individuals in management rarely admit to being ignorant or lacking information.  It degrades confidence in their leadership abilities. This is somewhat perverse the standpoint of pure logic. Human perception is seldom guided by logic. Especially when we account for the prosperity of people to use heuristics to aid in making quick decisions. A rule of thumb is to appear to be organized, sociable, hardworking, intelligent, and possessing a capacity for critical thinking. It is hard for your boss or co-workers to objectively validate that you have all these characteristics. It is easier to assume some who is confident and well-spoken has their shit together. Rather than examine the quality of work from a co-worker that is more reserved.  Whether you are dealing with voters or hiring managers appealing to their biases is key.


Part of behavior in a manner that will cultivate a positive image it is imperative to stay on the good side of your co-workers. Attend the occasion happy hours. Say good morning to everyone. Engage in small talk. Small talk can also double as a means of extracting information and gossip. Serves as a dual benefit. No one will be the wiser that you have ulterior motives. It also helps you to better integrate yourself with your co-workers. All of this goes into the social capital bank for you. Regardless of your intentions. If you are within the good graces of your peers they are less apt to throw you under the bus or start rumors about you. It isn’t full proof, but what is? It is when you appear unfriendly and negative is when people tend turn on you. Appearing to be nice will help smooth over your deficits in other areas of your job. Even if you are an impeccable worker, if you are hated by your peers you are on borrowed time.  It will create a hostile work environment for yourself and at that point you are better off jumping ship. Unfortunately, a bad reputation will endure longer than your tenure at the company. It is quite cumbersome to revive a sullied reputation among closed-minded people.


Much how Machiavelli dedicated his great book Lorenzo de’ Medici, I should dedicate this blog series to someone.  To the recent college graduate with too much time on their hands. As you pursue Zip Recruiter and Indeed for your first career opportunity, please keep this blog series in mind. The advice present is unorthodox and may even make your future human resources representative queasy. However, take from a guy with a job … it is sound advice. I may not be as innovative or clever as Machiavelli, but I can apply his philosophy to corporate America on a micro-scale.  I wish you luck in your job search.