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.