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If you treat an individual as he is, he will stay as he is; but if you treat him as if he were what he ought to be and could be, he will become what he ought to be and could be.Goethe

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Spotting and fighting our defensive reasoning

Spotting and fighting our defensive reasoning

We often adopt behaviors that are at odds with our values. Defense mechanisms, most often unconscious, are behind this phenomenon. How can we get rid of these defensive reactions?


Throughout his career, psychologist and researcher in social sciences Chris Argyris has shown interest for change in business organizations. More specifically, he brought out what, in human nature, prompts us to maintain problematical behaviors even as we actually possess good will and know that we should change them. Indeed, defense mechanisms, most often unconscious, lead us to act against our own interests and, even worse, without even realizing it. Thus, we do not learn, or so little, from our failures.

In his book of reference, Knowledge for Action, Chris Argyris mentions the example of seven leaders who, brilliant and getting on well together, left their respective companies to open a consulting firm. Their ambition? To create a healthy organization, focused on performance, without political games, with nothing left unsaid. A company capable of continuously learning and reinventing itself. In short, the opposite of what had demotivated them in their previous organizations. Yet, it only took a few years to see the behaviors they so wanted to avoid emerge again! The problems repeated themselves, without the firm managing to learn from its difficulties. The unsaid and political games multiplied, bringing cynicism and disengagement.

These behaviors and this inability to modify them stem from defensive reactions that are deeply anchored and largely unconscious. Is it a fatality? No, and this is how Argyris’s works have a universal and timeless reach: he studied the way we can get rid of these reactions to enable change and learning. The key is to develop a greater clear-sightedness on our inevitable contradictions, and adopt a voluntaristic approach to explicit the unsaid, in a manner that is respectful towards our counterparts. Another important challenge is to take a step back from the values and beliefs that dictate our behaviors, to respecify and nuance them. For example, respecting others might lead us to conceal what we think. But isn’t believing in their capacity for self-criticism also a form of respect?

In this synopsis:
– A frequent gap between discourse and behaviors
– Keep a constructive attitude in threatening or embarrassing situations
– You have values? Do not let them blind you
– Control your defensive reactions

Synopsis n.306b