Guest Blog: Michael Sales on Defensive Routines

Michael Sales is an organizational-change coach and facilitator who, like me, had the good fortune to study with Chris Argyris and Donald Schön in graduate school. At his website “Art of the Future,” Michael recently published a fitting tribute to these two men, including his reflections on how their ideas have influenced him over time.

The Social Context of Automatic Defensive Routines

Photo of Chris Argyris
Chris Argyris

I worked closely with Chris Argyris for eight years while at graduate school, where he chaired my doctoral dissertation committee. A large body of thought has grown up around Chris’s work, especially around the research and writing he did with his frequent collaborator, Don Schön.

Bill Torbert—a brilliant student of Argyris’s and a powerful force in his own right—coined the phrase “action science,” which Argyris later used to define a process through which organizations and their agents (i.e., individuals and teams) reflect on and experiment with action in some disciplined fashion in the service of creating new knowledge. Chris and Don together elaborated the idea of learning in and through action in several books, most notably Organizational Learning: A Theory of Action Perspective published in 1978. (That this book is selling used on Amazon for $65 and new for over $500 is a pretty good indication of the quality of its information!)

Donald Schon photo
Donald Schön

A Google search yields well over 400 direct references to Chris, who has written something like 25 books and over 100 articles. Donald Schön was a philosopher, city planner, musician and a man of many achievements, including—I believe—being one of the founders of the Educational Development Corporation. Now deceased, he was a lovely man, and his partnership with Chris helped shape countless ideas and people. I would say that Chris was the tougher-minded of the two, but Don was absolutely brilliant and a joy to work with.

As bright and hardworking as I might be, I was always playing catch-up to these two brilliant mentors and to a number of others who were significantly and directly influenced by Chris and Don, such as Lee Bolman, Phil Mirvis, Diana Smith, Robert Putnam, and Peter Senge to name a few of the many. The theory-of-action perspective and all of the work surrounding it, preceding it, flowing through it and derived from it is a huge body of thought. In my opinion, everyone who is a serious student of organizational behavior and learning owes it to themselves to dig into it long and deep.

As a restless intellectual sojourner, I’ve spent a lot of time at other conceptual sites in addition to those generated by the theory-of-action perspective. Recently, however, I’ve been working on an article concerning “automatic defensive routines,” which has taken me back into this territory with renewed vigor and attention.

This is my personal, brief synthesis of Argyris and Schön’s work related to the kind of defensiveness that is so well learned that we are not even aware of its presence. This synopsis is not based on a careful review of the wide range of literature that has been developed on this topic. It’s just the way I am thinking about it at the moment:

1. Except in the case of individuals who were born with grievous cognitive impairments, virtually all of us come into the world as learning sponges. This is readily demonstrated in our acquisition of language. We arrive asking why and how. The capacity for learning and change may be hindered through the course of life, but it is never fully extinguished.

2. Everyone is born into social contexts. Reality is given to us. I think we can argue, looking at the panoply of cultures and values that humanity has manifested both in the past and present, that there is no specific reality that is more true or valid than another reality. Some may be more data-based, but that doesn’t mean that they are more compelling than another which is not. So, many argue that reality is “socially constructed.” It is the way it is because we say so.

3. One of the ways in which socially constructed realities are similar, however, is in the fact that many versions of reality assert that there is a right way and a wrong way to do things, a right and wrong set of beliefs, and a dominant set of moral principles with which one should live in accordance and to which the laws of society should be related.

4. This rightness and wrongness is manifested in every layer of social context from family to world government structures. It is as though we are constantly taking a shower in a stream of consciousness that tells us what is right and what is wrong. The fixity of something being right and something being wrong is one of the key characteristics of authoritarian thought and action. So, one of Argyris’s “proofs” is that all of us are exposed—to one extent or another—to a recurring set of social institutions that systematically incline us toward low-inquiry thinking and behavior. We accept the given reality of our society and function in a relationship of some sort to its norms, beliefs and rules.

5. Thus, one of the key learnings we derive from our socialization is that there is right and wrong way to do things. The greater the pain of doing things “wrong” and the reward for doing things “right,” the bigger the individual psychological impact of this process of social learning.

6. The more deeply ingrained the sense of right and wrong is—in the individual, the group, the organization, the society—the more reactive and automatically defensive those “units of analysis” will be to challenges, or any conditions that they experience as stressful, as defined by the actors situationally. (In other words, a situation that is stressful for someone may be no big deal for someone else.) Most of us are greatly overtrained when it comes to being defensive, and we do not notice the automaticity of our responses.

7. The analytical situation is made more complex by the fact that it would be completely impossible to live a life without a well-functioning automatic response. You couldn’t drive; you couldn’t eat; you couldn’t take a shower without operating on automatic. Most of the things that you do every single day are on automatic. Much of what we do does not require learning. What we know is just fine, and there’s nothing ambiguous about the situation that would require us to challenge what we know. However, this knowing-what-to-do is as not true of family life, team life, or organizational life. These situations are much more complex and ambiguous. Yet when we’re under stress, we frequently act as though things are much more black-and-white than they really are; or, we believe there’s not enough time to investigate the full context of the situation. (“I mean, you can’t ‘take time’ to process everything!”) So, we act out of automatic defensive routines: our learned views of the right thing or the wrong thing to do in an ambiguous and complicated situation where there is no right or wrong.

8. Truly becoming aware of and discarding automatic defensive routines is a formidable challenge. There are a variety of methodologies that focus on the unlearning of automatic defense routines and the practicing how to put learning-oriented values into action. The so-called left-hand column personal case is an example of such a method.

9. The objective of these methods, and of a variety of other organization and leadership development technologies, is to reveal and soften the impact of automatic defensive routines. Some of these approaches are explicit in their aspiration to loosen the rigidity of automatic defensive routines; others are incorporated into more broadly defined “team building” activities.

So, the next time you think something is “simple,” keep in mind that very little in the realm of social life actually is.

Imagine the possibilities for all of us if we had to admit that it’s not that easy to know right from wrong.

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