Defensive Routines and Organizational Learning

Defensive routines are the policies or actions we put in place to prevent ourselves and our organizations from experiencing embarrassment or threat. The unintended consequence of these defensive routines is that they also prevent anyone from identifying and thereby reducing the causes of the embarrassment or threat. This is why we all tend to collude in admiring the emperor's new clothes--and why we feel such a sense of chagrin when we realize that the emperor is, indeed, unclad.

Organizational defensive routines are "anti-learning and overprotective," says organizational learning leader Chris Argyris. The "can do" attitude can blind people to seeing, and inhibit them from reporting and dealing with a potentially serious problem. The Challenger space tragedy was a prime example, where a faulty "O ring" design was passed over repeatedly by engineers intent on the goal of meeting space program deadlines.

What causes these defensive routines and how do we overcome them? Argyris contends that they are a product of the limited learning system that we create in our organizations.

The Causes of Errors: Limited Learning Systems

In earlier work Chris Argyris and Donald Schon proposed that most behavior in organization is shaped by a common set of "governing variables." These governing variables are:

  • Strive to be in unilateral control;
  • Minimize losing and maximize winning;
  • Minimize the expression or negative feelings;
  • Be rational.

These values lead to behaviors and actions that are primarily aimed at avoiding embarrassment or threats, such as:

  • Advocate your views without encouraging inquiry (hence, remain in unilateral control and hopefully win);
  • Unilaterally save face--your own and other people's (hence, minimize upsetting others or making them defensive);
  • Design and manage situations unilaterally (in order to maintain control);
  • Evaluate the thoughts and actions of others in ways that do not encourage testing the validity of the evaluation (and our own thoughts and actions);
  • Attribute causes for whatever we are trying to understand--without necessarily validating them;
  • Engage in defensive actions such as blaming, stereotyping, and intellectualizing to suppress feelings.
  • Interestingly these variables don't necessarily match the values that people espouse (most of us apparently aspire to operate according to a "higher" standard), yet these variables tend to shape our behaviors, particularly under stress. Since work environments are often stressful, these values come into play most frequently, despite whatever values people espouse. Argyris and Schon call this constellation of variables and the actions that derive from them "Model 1 theory-in-use. " The term "theory-in use" says that this theory can be inferred from our actions even though we may espouse a different set of governing variables. Model 1 tells individuals to craft their positions, evaluations, and attributions in ways that inhibit inquiries into and tests of them with the use of independent logic. Furthermore, research has shown that Model 1 theory-in-use seems almost universal; it appears to cut across culture, age, gender, and economic status.

    The consequences of these Model 1 strategies are likely to be defensiveness, misunderstandings, and self-fulfilling and self-sealing processes. Like single-loop learning, Model 1 behaviors are useful in some situations--but are not useful in more complex situations where we must seek the best, most valid information. Errors cannot be readily detected in situations where everyone is colluding in saving face.

    The crucial link here is that Schon and Argyris hold that human beings programmed with Model 1--and that includes almost all of us--will create and impose a limited learning system on any organization in which they participate. In other words, we tend to create organizational cultures that reinforce these values and behaviors regardless of who comes or leaves. They term this an "organizational Model 1 learning system."

    The paradox comes about because these Model 1-based organizational learning systems reward limited learning and give rise to organizational defense routines. In fact, they are a type of defense routines. They also give rise to other negative consequences such as taboos and control games and mixed messages. So, without intending to, we start to create "Dilbertian" environments. And, as a consequence, our work results are not what they could be. Why? Simply put, because we are disabling intelligence that could be brought to bear on solving complex problems and making more efficacious decisions.

    Why, despite the adverse consequences do we all seem to act in accordance with Model 1? First, because Model 1 is based upon values that were instilled in us in childhood and reinforced through most of our educational and work life experiences. This makes it very difficult to change because changing requires that we explore strongly embedded values and assumptions within our own psyche. Few of us have the skills or courage to be able to do this alone.

    Secondly, we have constructed a system that is self-reinforcing and self-perpetrating, making it extremely difficult for us to change the system unless we fully understand and confront it This is a deep sea, and we have only recently begun to wade, rather tentatively, into it.

    The Way to Deep Organizational Learning

    The stranglehold can be broken if we are able to engage a new set of governing variable and behaviors which Argyris and Schon call “Model II.” Model II behaviors are governed by an entirely different set of variables than Model I, and they create an entirely different, more open working environment.

    Comparison of Model I and Model II Theories-in-Use

    Model I [The Dominant, Often Dysfunctional Way]

    Governing Variables:

  • Always be in unilateral control (so you can achieve your intended purpose)

  • Maximize winning and minimize losing

  • Behave according to what you consider rational.

    Implications: We:

  • Design and manage situations unilaterally--in order to win we have to control situations--but one gains control by taking control away from others.

  • Advocate our views without encouraging inquiry [to remain in unilateral control and hopefully win];

  • Evaluate the thoughts and actions of others in ways that do not encourage testing the validity of the evaluation;

  • Attribute causes for whatever we are trying to understand--without necessarily validating those attributions;

  • Unilaterally save face by withholding information or making certain things "undiscussable" in order to minimize upsetting others or making them defensive.

  • Engage in defensive actions such as blaming, stereotyping, intellectualizing. We use defensive reasoning: we keep our premises and inferences tacit, lest we lose control. To be rational means “to keep actions in constant alignment with our beliefs," but we believe it means "be logical by suppressing emotions." We fear effectiveness decreases as we become more emotional.
  • Model II: The Emergent, Higher Road

    Governing Variables:
  • Valid Information:

  • Free and informed choice

  • Internal commitment to the choice and vigilant monitoring of the implementation of the choice in order to detect and correct error.

    Implications: We:

  • Share power and co-create situations--Rather than taking control away from you in order to accomplish my goal, we realize that we share in the responsibility for outcomes. Therefore we share power with anyone who has competence and who is relevant in deciding or implementing the action. We seek to build viable decision-making networks in which we maximize the contributions of each member, enabling the widest possible exploration of views.

  • Inquire--We actively strive to test our theories publicly, making our inferences apparent; we actively seek to reduce blindness about our own inconsistency and incongruity. We try to find the most competent people for the decision to be made. We make fewer evaluations and attributions; when we do, we encourage others to inquire into them and test them.

  • We don't strive to save face or protect ourselves or others by withholding information.

  • Experience less defensiveness--People experience us not as defensive, but rather as facilitator, collaborator, choice creator. We seek to support each other’s growth and evaluate every significant action in terms of the desire to which it helps the individuals involved generate valid and useful information (including relevant feelings).
  • Adapted from Chris Argyris, On Organizational Learning, 1999.


    Model I Theory in Action = Traditional teaching and school administration.
    Model II = Best Practice--but all too rare.

    According to leading theorists and practioners in the learning organization movement we need to prepare ourselves, our students, and administrators to operate with one foot in Model I, the other in Model II, to create hybrid approaches in an era of transition. That is the uncharted sea we are challenged to navigate and chart together. "Ships are safe in the harbor, but that is not what ships are built for."


    We are available for consulting and other services.

    All courses and web pages Copyright © 2002-2005