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.

Guest Blog: Vicky Schubert on The Elephant

When you write a book, you never know what people will make of it—what questions it will raise, what insights it might trigger, what help it might offer. So it’s always instructive when a careful reader shares his or her impressions of a work. In my case, I was fortunate that that reader was Vicky Schubert, the principal of Inspired Alliance. Vicky has been coaching executives, managers, and teams for many years, helping them amplify their professional impact. In a recent blog, she offered her impressions of my most recent book, The Elephant in the Room. I found them so insightful and fresh that I thought I’d share them with you.

2012 Gift Book Pick: The Elephant in the Room

Vicky SchubertAt first glance, I wondered why Diana McLain Smith called her latest book about relationships The Elephant in the Room. Surely, interpersonal relationships are now understood to be an essential part of organizational life; every leadership competency model includes relational skills and every workplace development office offers classes on conflict resolution.

But as I delved into this highly readable, story-rich book, I increasingly appreciated Smith’s insight into two important ways that relationships at work are like that proverbial elephant—seen but undiscussed; or at least under-discussed and misunderstood.  By providing a practical roadmap and tools for identifying, understanding, and strengthening key relationships, Smith has created an excellent resource for leaders and coaches poised to push past their limitations in this domain.

The first way that we typically under-discuss relationships at work is by relegating them to the “soft skills” territory, making them a quality of life concern rather than a life or death concern. Smith moves relationships into the “hard” category, not just in the sense that they can be difficult (we all know they can be!), but in the sense that relationships are critical business assets. The behind-the-headlines stories she shares amply illustrate the significant bottom-line consequences of relationship issues left unaddressed. For leaders reluctant to venture into relationship matters too deeply, an amplified awareness of what’s at stake may help them embrace the work as a strategic investment.

The second way we tend to under-discuss relationships at work is to regard them at arm’s length, as structures outside ourselves that we can learn to “build” and “manage.” But with her finely-honed systems instincts, Smith exposes the inadequacy of this framing and guides us to see relationships as dynamic human systems that we inhabit and continuously co-create with each other. She provides tools that empower us to see how we contribute to the very patterns we feel trapped by and how, together, we can interrupt and disarm those patterns in the interest of forward progress. By inviting us to engage with relationships as a matter of perspective rather than of skill, Smith has elevated the conversation and made it easier (though still not easy) to talk about them productively.

If there is a leader or a coach on your holiday gift list, I think they’ll welcome The Elephant in the Room as a source of new insights and action in the coming year.

Finding the sense in nonsense

Imagine the scene. You’re midway through a meeting. Someone—the person who rankles you most—argues a point that to him is totally obvious but to you is sheer idiocy. What happens next? Most likely you tune out what he’s saying and tune into your own internal dialogue—a dialogue that goes something like this: “Here we go again. I can’t believe it. This guy just doesn’t get it. He’s utterly hopeless. There’s no point in trying to reason with him. I’ll just have to . . . .” Have to do what? Well, use the stick, the carrot, or the .357 magnum—that is, fight back, humor him, or give up on the relationship, basically killing it.

You’re far from alone. This same scene unfolds everywhere, producing the same result every time: stress and frustration on the one hand, no learning or progress on the other. That’s what’s called the lose-lose box.

Clearly no one likes ending up in this box. So why do so many of us end up there so often? How does it actually happen? The easy explanation is that the other guy pushes us into it, as if by gunpoint. After all, how else can a reasonable person respond to nonsense? Maybe. But that answer is so self-defeating—it will never get you out of the lose-lose box—it’s worth considering other possibilities. Cognitive science and my own research offer three explanations:

  • Naive realism. We all share a universal tendency to assume that our facts speak for themselves, and as a result, to believe (falsely) that any idiot should agree with our views.
  • False consensus. We also tend to believe that reasonable people share our views when, in fact, most don’t. This belief, reinforced by the cultural tendency to avoid disagreement and to save face, makes anyone who disagrees look like the odd-man-out.
  • False comparisons. I came across this shared tendency in my own research on leaders who, I discovered, tend to compare their strengths with others’ weaknesses, but seldom compare their weaknesses with others’ strengths. Hence, they rarely take a balanced view.

All of this adds up to one result: the tendency to focus on the nonsense and to overlook the sense in opposing views, pushing us into the lose-lose box. Usually we don’t even realize it’s happening.

To guard against these tendencies, it helps to actively search for the sense in what others say even when—especially when—it strikes you as nonsense.

Why, you might ask, would you want to do that? And even if you wanted to, just how exactly would you go about it? The rationale as to “why” is simple: less stress and frustration, more learning and progress. That’s what’s called the win-win box. By looking for the sense in what others say, you are more able to demonstrate that you understand others’ views before pointing out what you think they might be missing or how you differ with them.

Odds are, if you make good sense out of what others say, they will be more inclined to make good sense out of what you say. And therein lie the seeds of learning and progress.

The “how” is less simple, because it requires discipline and practice. But if you consciously and consistently do the  four following things, you will rarely find yourself in the lose-lose box.

  • Shift your attention away from your internal dialogue and onto what the other person is saying. As soon as your internal dialogue starts, take that as your cue to stop listening to it and to start listening to others. As soon as you find your blood pressure rising, start taking notes on what others are saying. Avoid editorializing. Record their words, not your assessments.
  • Inquire into and listen for the underlying logic behind others’ arguments. Even if you disagree with what people are saying, you can still inquire into and listen for the logic underlying their arguments: what they think causes what, and what leads them to think so. Try to discern that logic; if you can’t, ask for the thinking behind their views and what leads them to think that way. Then outline their logic in your own mind or, better yet, on paper.
  • Paraphrase others’ views and test whether you’ve captured them well. Once you’ve listened closely to the underlying logic behind others’ views, paraphrase the logic succinctly and in a way that does justice to it. No caricaturing allowed. The best paraphrase captures others’ views better than they could themselves. End by asking if you’ve understood what they’re saying.
  • Say where you see gaps or where you differ, and ask others to speak to that. Once you’ve grasped their view well and demonstrated to them that you have, only then should you identify where you differ, inviting them to say how they see it: “If I understand it correctly, you’re saying this. I see it differently. This is what leads me to do so. Help me see what I’m missing.” Or: “If I understand it correctly, you’re saying this. These data suggest that may not be the case or at least the whole case. Let me say what the data are, so you can speak to them.”

There’s no guarantee that these steps will lead to a meeting of minds. But I guarantee that they will help you learn something new—something you can use to improve your own thinking and any solutions you devise. As a result, you’re bound to feel a lot less frustration and stress and to produce a lot more progress and learning. Hard to argue with that—or is it?

How much sense and nonsense do you see in opposing views?

Five ways to get more debate, less hate

Last week we voted, and by and large we disagreed—the winner barely squeaking out a majority, and the loser gathering 59 million people to his way of thinking. However any of us voted, whatever any of us believes, these words from the victor summed up the contest: “Democracy in a nation of 300 million can be noisy and messy and complicated. We have our own opinions. Each of us has deeply held beliefs. And when we go through tough times, when we make big decisions as a country, it necessarily stirs passions, stirs up controversy.”

After four years of Washington infighting, Barack Obama should know. In fact, you’d think he’d be sick of it by now. But instead, the newly re-elected president went on to—well, argue—that arguments are “a mark of our liberty,” reminding us that “as we speak, people in distant nations are risking their lives right now just for a chance to argue about the issues that matter.”

But let’s face it. Not all arguments are equal. It’s one thing to be passionate about your views; it’s another to hate the other side. Somewhere along the way over the past 20 years, we have turned debate into hate. Over the next 20, we must do better—far better, for we will be determining not just the fate of our country but of our planet.

To meet that challenge, leaders on both sides must do five things—all of which go against the grain of our current political culture:

  • Ground debate in data that both parties consider relevant and meaningful. This is a lot harder than it may sound. Each party has its own view of what data is relevant and meaningful. That by itself is not the problem. If anything, it’s a good thing, because each party will naturally focus on facts the other misses or overlooks. The problem is that neither party takes the other party’s data seriously. As it now stands, each party sweeps inconvenient data away, discrediting not just the data, but the people who are “mad” or “bad” enough to use it. We’d get much better debate and a lot less hate if both parties stopped denigrating and discounting the other’s data and instead addressed it, even if only to debate its relevance or validity.
  • Speak to the best in both parties and stop playing to the lowest common denominator. Over the past couple of decades, each party has ceded more and more control to their more extreme ends. Now increasingly hostage to the fringe, lawmakers are finding it harder and harder to lead. But what if, instead of appealing to the worst in their own party, a small number sought to appeal to the best in the other party? What if they spoke a little less to their own party’s animosities and anxieties and a little more to the other party’s core values and principles? This shift from the worst to the best in each party would not only improve the quality of our debates but the quality of our solutions as well.
  • Look for common interests; get relentlessly creative when interests clash. The overwhelming majority of Americans may share the same hopes and dreams for the future, but as Obama pointed out that hasn’t spared us from gridlock. So what will?

    Two things. The first is a laser-like focus on the interests, hopes, concerns, and dreams all Americans share, so we never lose sight of what makes us indivisible. The second is a relentless commitment to working together to invent solutions that meet each party’s divergent interests well enough to be acceptable and neither party’s perfectly.

    Doing that requires equal doses of maturity and creativity. Maturity means accepting that we can’t always get our own way, and we may have to share. Creativity means inventing solutions neither party could imagine alone—solutions that speak to the wide-ranging threats and opportunities we face as a nation and not too quickly solving one at the expense of another. It means, for example, asking how we can address climate change while growing our economy, not just tomorrow but today—and staying at it until we invent something that addresses both, if not perfectly, much better than what we have now.
  • Take some personal responsibility for outcomes you don’t like. Heading up to the election, it was anybody’s guess (except for Nate Silver) which party would prove victorious. As it turned out, the Democrats won and the Republicans lost both the Presidency and the Senate. Still, I can easily imagine an alternative universe where the Democrats lost and the Republicans won. In both universes—actual and alternative—I can hear the losing party’s politicians and pundits saying the same thing: the other guy stole it, the other guy lied, the other guy ran an ugly campaign, those people (poor or rich) made it impossible for my guy to win, they’ve made it impossible to address our nation’s problems while we’re doing everything we can. To listen to them, you’d think neither party ever did anything to cause a single problem, yet problems aplenty we have.

    In all honesty, I’d say it was pathetic, but it fails to evoke even the slightest pathos. What it does evoke is the same disdain I have whenever I see adults getting on their high horse to profess one thing (people should take personal responsibility) while blithely doing another (blaming everyone but themselves). Now that is a recipe for hate and disdain. As such, it is not just in our national interest to stop it, but in our leaders’ self-interest. Look no further when trying to explain why the electorate has lost so much confidence in and respect for its leaders.
  • Show a little courage and a lot of grit. None of the above is easy to do. As I said, it goes against the grain of our political culture, making it hard for any one leader to take the risk of behaving differently. Most political cynics, even realists, would say it’s just never going to happen. I disagree. I think most of those who run for office have a passion to serve, and they took a lot of risk to get there. Trouble is, once there, they got caught in culture’s grip, where they now feel damned if they go along and damned if they don’t.

    But what if a handful of these leaders refused to stay caught? What if they reached out across party lines and built an alliance for change? What if, like Rosa Parks or Soviet dissidents, they simply stopped going along?

    I bet we’d soon see a shift, even a movement, emerge.  All it takes is a little courage and a lot of grit on the parts of a few people. Think of the Civil Rights movement in the United States, the fall of the Berlin Wall in Germany, the Solidarity Movement in Poland, the end of apartheid in South Africa.  There are just too many examples to discount them all.

    History tells us that if there is a deep, abiding need—for justice, for liberty, for survival—and surely there is here, all it takes is a few good people to get it started. The rest will follow.

Now consider this. While you may rightly argue that the root cause of our current political dysfunction is structural—campaign financing, gerrymandering, primaries that drive an electorate to the extremes—only our leaders can change those structural factors. And as long as the existing political culture persists, those leaders will be unable and unwilling to do so.

We have to start somewhere. I’m looking for a few good men and women to create a coalition committed to changing our political culture. Agreeing to more debate and less hate would be a good place to start.

When in certitude, doubt

Ben Franklin illustrationTwo hundred and twenty-five years ago this week, Benjamin Franklin voted to approve the Constitution. Before doing so, the 81-year-old statesman asked a junior colleague, James Wilson, to read written remarks he’d prepared to George Washington, presiding. “Mr. President,” he began, “I confess that there are several parts of this constitution which I do not at present approve. But,” he added, taking a rare rhetorical turn: “I am not sure I shall never approve them.”

Why? “For having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged by better Information, or fuller Consideration, to change Opinions even on important Subjects, which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise.”

And so it was that on September 17, 1787, Franklin consented to sign the Constitution. “I expect no better,” he explained, “and because I am not sure, that it is not the best.” He then ended by imploring his colleagues to follow suit, hoping “that every member of the Convention who may still have Objections to it, would with me, on this occasion doubt a little of his own Infallibility, and to make manifest our Unanimity, put his name to this Instrument.”

In our day this ability to doubt one’s own infallibility—even a little bit, even on occasion—is in ruin. If anything, today’s political culture in Washington is the antithesis of what Franklin modeled when addressing its namesake.

This got me, a long-standing Independent, to surmise: If we fail to make a more perfect union over the next two hundred and twenty-five years, it will not likely be because one or another party’s vision for America failed. It will be because both parties—but right now especially the Republican party—is so certain of its rightness that it has altogether abandoned the single most important value through which we have sought over time to perfect our union: humility.

Perhaps the culprit isn’t the quality of the people but the quality of the situation. Perhaps times of acute uncertainty simply breed a deep need for certainty. Perhaps all leaders today—not just Tea Partiers—cling to certainty as a desperate man, caught in a roaring tsunami, clings to any flotsam he can find.

Whatever the reason, certainty is an illusion that begets only greater uncertainty. Reality will always be far more complex than any one person or party can grasp with certainty, and it will always overwhelm the ability of any one person or party to predict or shape what happens next.

If we must be certain of something, we’d be far better off being certain of our own fallibility. At least then, we’d see more, we’d learn more, and we’d know more before charting our course into the future. As it is, we’re headed into the wind half-blind.

When in certitude, the only sure way forward is doubt.