Defensive reactions as a fundamental condition of human communication: a short case study

The given situation

We were asked to con­duct a team deve­lo­p­ment trai­ning with team lea­ders of the cus­to­mer ser­vice unit of a medi­um sized, high­ly effi­ci­ent working enter­pri­se. Our task was to help the team lea­ders to sol­ve con­flicts ori­gi­na­ting from some pro­ble­ma­tic events seve­ral months before.

The team lea­ders are expe­ri­en­ced and skil­led per­sons who have done their jobs in this com­pa­ny for at least three years. The­re are near­ly no pro­blems with their own teams, but within the group of team lea­ders its­elf. If the­re is a pro­blem from out­side the group such as a request to enga­ge some of their more expe­ri­en­ced ser­vice team mem­bers in pro­jects of other units, the group mem­bers get tog­e­ther and try to sol­ve the pro­blem. That could mean to defend the sta­tus quo, too. But if there’s no request or any other pro­blem from out­side, the team lea­ders are hard­ly able to find any solu­ti­on. Their mee­tings would lead to near­ly no results, and the more serious issues would be post­po­ned seve­ral times until some­bo­dy from the manage­ment board (“out­side”) would insist to find a decis­i­on until a set deadline.

What is the problem?

Asked for their goals and expec­ta­ti­ons for the trai­ning some of the group mem­bers recoun­ted their view on when and why the pro­blems occur­red and what should hap­pen in the trai­ning. The pic­tu­re as we saw it after the group mem­bers com­ple­ted their stories:

The supe­ri­or of the group of team lea­ders (mem­ber of the manage­ment board) was away for seve­ral months due to duties over­se­as. His repre­sen­ta­ti­ve (one of the group mem­bers) was to replace him tem­po­r­a­ri­ly. This was the offi­ci­al regu­la­ti­on. But the depu­ty was not able to fill the tem­po­ra­ry “lea­der­ship gap” for three reasons: First, some of his team mem­bers did not accept him as their tem­po­ra­ry super­vi­sor. Second, the gene­ral mana­ger ten­ded to make use of the situa­ti­on as he tried to con­vin­ce the tem­po­ra­ry mana­ger to make more fun­da­men­tal chan­ges in a given peri­od of time than the mana­ger who was over­se­as would have accept­ed. Third, when the other mem­bers of the group lear­ned about the chan­ges inten­ded by the gene­ral mana­ger, they beca­me pas­si­ve and did not con­tri­bu­te to the chan­ges. Most decis­i­ons had to wait until the mana­ger would be back from overseas.

The theo­re­ti­cal background

None of the mem­bers of the group would say that he or she did not want to con­tri­bu­te to the chan­ges nor that he or she did not accept the tem­po­ra­ry lea­der of the group. This would have made the com­mit­ting per­son vul­nerable. Moreo­ver, the per­son would have been char­ged for acting une­thi­cal­ly. So, the mem­bers of the group would not tell the truth about their assump­ti­ons in order to pro­tect them­sel­ves from harm and accu­sa­ti­ons. This way of incon­sis­tent com­mu­ni­ca­ti­on the rese­ar­cher Chris Argy­ris cal­led defen­si­ve rou­ti­nes. A per­son would com­mu­ni­ca­te incon­sis­tent mes­sa­ges (= not tell the truth) and act as if he or she is not doing so in order to pro­tect him- or hers­elf. To be effec­ti­ve, such actions need to be cover­ed up in order to make the defen­si­ve actions indiscussable.

“The­se actions are orga­niza­tio­nal defen­si­ve rou­ti­nes. They over­pro­tect indi­vi­du­als or groups and inhi­bit them from lear­ning new actions. They are rou­ti­nes becau­se they occur con­ti­nu­al­ly and are inde­pen­dent of indi­vi­du­al actors’ per­so­na­li­ties.” (Argy­ris 1993c, p. 20) Defen­si­ve rou­ti­nes “exist in the first place becau­se human beings learn ear­ly in life to deal with embar­rass­ment or thre­at” (Argy­ris 1993c, p. 20).

Accor­ding to Argy­ris, the­re are two types of theo­ries that con­trol the actions of an indi­vi­du­al. Asked direct­ly, a per­son would tell about his or her con­scious theo­ries of action, the so-cal­led “espou­sed theo­ries”, that con­tain, for ins­tance, values or atti­tu­des. The­se “espou­sed theo­ries” dif­fer sys­te­ma­ti­cal­ly from the less con­scious “theo­ries-in-use”, that actual­ly gui­de a person’s actions. Argy­ris (1993a, p. 186) says, that there’s a sys­te­ma­tic dif­fe­rence bet­ween theo­ries-in-use and the espou­sed theo­ries. While the espou­sed theo­ries dif­fer from indi­vi­du­al to indi­vi­du­al and situa­ti­on to situa­ti­on, the theo­ries-in-use are simi­lar to each other and do not dif­fer. The­re are, accor­ding to Argy­ris, just two models of theo­ries-in-use in the world. So the con­scious theo­ries of action dif­fer from indi­vi­du­al to indi­vi­du­al, but the­re are just two types of the uncon­scious theories-in-use.

espoused theories vs. theories in use 1

Model I theo­ry-in-use “has four gover­ning values:

1. Achie­ve your inten­ded purpose.

2. Maxi­mi­ze win­ning and mini­mi­ze losing.

3. Sup­press nega­ti­ve feelings.

4. Behave to what you con­sider ratio­nal.” (Argy­ris 1993c, p. 52)

The­re are three pre­va­lent action stra­te­gies that ari­se from Model I:

1. Advo­ca­te and defend your own position.

2. Ana­ly­ze the actions and (pro­ba­ble) thoughts of the others.

3. Find and attri­bu­te cau­ses for every action, fact or ques­ti­on you want to understand.

The­se action stra­te­gies have to be per­for­med in a way that would con­firm the values of the theo­ry-in-use. That means, the action stra­te­gies would be per­for­med in order to achie­ve con­trol and win­ning. This is what we call “stra­te­gic communication”.

espoused theories vs. theories in use 2

Argy­ris (1993a, p. 187) says, that most human beings are dri­ven by theo­ries-in-use rela­ted to the model I. He pre­dicts which action stra­te­gies will be used and which results will be achie­ved. The­se pre­dic­tions have been tes­ted in dozens of groups and with thou­sands of indi­vi­du­als and have not been fal­si­fied up to now. Most peo­p­le pre­fer theo­ries that do not fit in the model I, and if they are con­fron­ted with Argy­ris’ pre­dic­tions, they would try to pro­ve their inva­li­di­ty. Some of the­se peo­p­le then would pre­sent stra­te­gies, that look like the oppo­si­te of model I. Argy­ris cal­led this model the anti-model I.

Anti-model I con­ta­ins con­tra­ry attri­bu­ti­ons and values, but its pur­po­se is to cover up the real thoughts and opi­ni­ons of an acting per­son (Argy­ris 1993a, p. 190). By using the anti-model I, com­mu­ni­ca­ti­on would be more open and one-sided con­trol can be redu­ced, but the main pur­po­se of the stra­te­gies emer­ging from anti-model I is still the self-defen­se of the per­son or group using the anti-model I.

espoused theories vs. theories in use 3

Defen­si­ve rou­ti­nes should pro­tect human beings from nega­ti­ve sur­pri­ses, loss of face, and thre­at (Argy­ris 1993b, p. 132). Ensu­ring this, defen­si­ve rou­ti­nes also pre­vent indi­vi­du­als and groups from lear­ning how to redu­ce the ori­g­ins of thre­at and loss of face by cir­cum­ven­ting the the­ma­tiza­ti­on of nega­ti­ve fee­lings. As the psy­cho­ana­lyst Wil­fred Bion once took it: The repres­si­on – or even worse: the deni­al – of nega­ti­ve fee­lings pre­vents human beings from lear­ning from expe­ri­ence. So the pur­po­se of the abo­ve descri­bed model I is self-pro­tec­tion, but this also means a reduc­tion of the free­dom of choice. Accor­ding to Argy­ris (1993a, p. 189), near­ly all peo­p­le use vari­ants of the model I type of theo­ries-in-use, and just a few use anti-model I theo­ries-in-use. While inter­ac­ting in fami­lies, groups or orga­niza­ti­ons, defen­si­ve pat­terns emer­ge to pre­vent – for the moment the indi­vi­du­al, later the group – the invol­ved per­sons from thre­at and embarrassment.

Argy­ris (1993a, S. 220) descri­bes, giving an exam­p­le, how an actor (an orga­niza­tio­nal psy­cho­lo­gist) ana­ly­ses and later explains the actions of his cli­ents with the help of pre­sump­ti­ons that he did not test. The reason for not having tes­ted the pre­sump­ti­on was ano­ther not-tes­ted pre­sump­ti­on: The cli­ents could be irri­ta­ted by such ques­ti­ons. That means, the first lay­er of pre­sump­ti­ons will be legi­ti­ma­ted – and cover­ed! – by a second lay­er of pre­sump­ti­ons. The­re are know­ledge gaps, and ins­tead of fil­ling them with infor­ma­ti­on we tend to crea­te new gaps to fill them.

If this pro­cess works, it would end up in group dyna­mics of win­ning and losing, of con­for­mi­ty within a group and pola­riza­ti­on bet­ween groups. It would also lead to games of decep­ti­on on the orga­niza­tio­nal level. The defen­si­ve rou­ti­nes on the orga­niza­tio­nal level addi­tio­nal­ly are “dou­ble faced” – the indi­vi­du­al defen­si­ve actions are the­re to pre­vent the indi­vi­du­al from deal­ing with embar­rass­ment and thre­at, how much more dif­fi­cult will it be to the­ma­ti­ze defen­si­ve rou­ti­nes on the level of a group or even an organization?

What do we learn from this?

1. Human beings do not com­mu­ni­ca­te non-stra­te­gic and open. Under nor­mal cir­cum­s­tances they would not reve­al their theo­ries-in-use (assump­ti­ons about the others, values, attri­bu­ti­ons). This means, in nego­tia­ti­ons each side would try to per­sua­de the other side wit­hout chan­ging the own position.

2. In mul­ti­cul­tu­ral set­tings the situa­ti­on is even more dif­fi­cult becau­se of the addi­tio­nal assump­ti­ons about the other cul­tu­re and the deep and most­ly uncon­scious non­ver­bal irri­ta­ti­ons that ori­gi­na­te from dif­fe­rent habi­tus and value sys­tems and social orders.

3. One chan­ce to learn about nego­tia­ti­ons is to deve­lop bet­ter action stra­te­gies (the psy­cho­lo­gy of persuasion).

4. The other pos­si­bi­li­ty to find bet­ter results in nego­tia­ti­ons is to learn about the defen­si­ve mecha­nisms that pre­vent us from real lear­ning – as long as I defend mys­elf, I am not able to ques­ti­on my own assump­ti­ons about the others, their goals, my goals and so on.

5. The way to do this is to build a sta­ble and bea­ring rela­ti­onship to the per­sons whom I’m up to nego­tia­te with.

Back to the team lea­ders: How to help the mem­bers of the group to sol­ve their problems?

We agreed with the team mem­bers to work on the fol­lo­wing issues:

1. They should learn some­thing about the mecha­nisms that pre­vent them from task-ori­en­ted inter­ac­tion and from fin­ding solu­ti­ons in their team mee­tings. To do so we asked them to par­ti­ci­pa­te in an exer­cise crea­ted by Chris Argy­ris (1993b) by which it is pos­si­ble to iden­ti­fy the hid­den thoughts and fee­lings in com­mu­ni­ca­ti­on. This expe­ri­ence can bring teams to more mutu­al accep­tance, open­ness and task-orientation.

2. As most of the team mem­bers out­lined, in the dis­cus­sion, the reasons for the cur­rent pro­blems, the team cul­tu­re suf­fe­r­ed from a lack of mutu­al under­stan­ding and feed­back during the last months. We con­duc­ted seve­ral exer­ci­s­es with figu­res that allo­wed the par­ti­ci­pan­ts to give each other feed­back and to express cri­ti­cal opi­ni­ons and wis­hes as well.

3. It was neces­sa­ry to rebuild good rela­ti­onships within the team, and the team nee­ded some methods for this. What hel­ped here, was the method “reflec­ting team” and Ed Schein’s “camp­fi­re exercise”.

At last we want to point out that good com­mu­ni­ca­ti­on is an ethi­cal issue, too. As we lear­ned from Chris Argy­ris, even ever­y­day inter­ac­tion under nor­mal cir­cum­s­tances is “stra­te­gic” and defen­si­ve. It takes a long time and a strong wil­ling­ness to reflect and to appro­ve one’s own com­mu­ni­ca­ti­on skills, not to men­ti­on the efforts to be taken in groups or organizations.

Regar­ding nego­tia­ti­ons, you are to choo­se bet­ween two com­ple­te­ly dif­fe­rent sides and com­mu­ni­ca­ti­on styl­es. You can use the best stra­te­gies you can find in order to win. Then you will care about how to start the con­ver­sa­ti­on, which sequence would be best for the argu­ments and how to anti­ci­pa­te pos­si­ble objec­tions. But you can also try to estab­lish equa­li­ty and nego­tia­te on the foun­da­ti­on of a trus­ting relationship.

Jörg Hei­dig


Argy­ris, Chris (1993a): Defen­si­ve Rou­ti­nen. In: Ger­hard Fat­zer (Hg.): Orga­ni­sa­ti­ons­ent­wick­lung für die Zukunft. Ein Hand­buch. Köln: Ed. Huma­nis­ti­sche Psy­cho­lo­gie, S. 179–226.

Argy­ris, Chris (1993b): Ein­ge­üb­te Inkom­pe­tenz – ein Füh­rungs­di­lem­ma. In: Ger­hard Fat­zer (Hg.): Orga­ni­sa­ti­ons­ent­wick­lung für die Zukunft. Ein Hand­buch. Köln: Ed. Huma­nis­ti­sche Psy­cho­lo­gie, S. 129–144.

Argy­ris, Chris (1993c): Know­ledge for action. A gui­de to over­co­ming bar­riers to orga­niza­tio­nal chan­ge. San Fran­cis­co, Calif: Jos­sey-Bass Publishers.

Von Jörg Heidig

Jörg Heidig, Jahrgang 1974, nach Abitur und Berufsausbildung in der Arbeit mit Flüchtlingen zunächst in Deutschland und anschließend für mehrere Jahre in Bosnien-Herzegowina tätig, danach Studium der Kommunikationspsychologie, anschließend Projektleiter bei der Internationalen Bauausstellung in Großräschen, seither als beratender Organisationspsychologe, Coach und Supervisor für pädagogische Einrichtungen, soziale Organisationen, Behörden und mittelständische Unternehmen tätig. 2010 Gründung des Beraternetzwerkes Prozesspsychologen. Lehraufträge an der Hochschule der Sächsischen Polizei, der Dresden International University, der TU Dresden sowie der Hochschule Zittau/Görlitz.