Dean Rusk with President Johnson and Robert McNamara.  The very pinnacle of government in the USA at the time.  No place for defensive reasoning – but…

Dean Rusk was the 54th United States Secretary of State from 1961 – 1969, serving under John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.  He has also been attributed with averting nuclear war through his input in the EXCOMM meetings chaired by JFK, an aside I found interesting in the light of my previous posting on Left Hand Column.  You may have the courage to save the world from annihilation but there is no guarantee that you will not fall prey to defensive reasoning.


During President Johnson’s term of office the State Department, nicknamed ‘Foggy Bottom’, had a reputation for a lack of openness, transparency and trust.  President Johnson asked Secretary Rusk to change this.

Rusk held a meeting of his senior team.  He invited Prof Chris Argyris, who was working with some of the senior ambassadors at the time.  Rusk opened the meeting with a plea for change.  Everyone agreed to be candid and open.  An assistant secretary from the Department of Defense then presented a management system that had made the difference for them.  Rusk asked for comment.  Nobody spoke.  Rusk asked Prof Argyris his opinion.  Prof Argyris suggested that officials in the State Department would resist implementing the management system.  Again there was no response from the room.  Rusk asked for input from one the most senior ambassadors in the US at the time who had been invited to support the system.  He said in effect “If you and the president want us to implement this system we will”.

After the meeting this ambassador told Prof Argyris that he actually agreed with him.  When asked why he had not said so in the meeting the ambassador said ‘it would have been inappropriate’.  Rusk said he was surprised the ambassador had not been honest and candid in the meeting.  Prof Argyris asked whether Rusk had brought this up with the Ambassador, to which he responded, ‘No it would have been inappropriate’.

Rusk, the ambassador and all the officials involved had chosen to act contrary to the values of openness and candour.  Others in the State Department admitted that actually being candid would be committing organisational and career suicide.    Defensive reasoning was ubiquitous!  Officials spoke of the double bind:  Participate and commit career suicide or continue to cover-up and ratify the President’s opinion about our lack of changeability.

And how did they deal with this double bind?  They denied they were experiencing it and they denied their denying.  They minimised risk-taking, openness and candour as well as their feelings of responsibility and willingness to confront conflict openly.  Dialogue was pushed underground.  Everyone played it safe.  No-one made waves.  And they all acted as if this was a rational approach.

They were trapped in defensive reasoning.

‘Organisational Traps’ by Chris Argyris is a rather sobering read on defensive reasoning.  We all create Organisational Traps.  And, if we are to have any success in working with teams, we have to deal with them.  Here is how we create our own traps:

First we voice our values.


But we act in ways contrary to what we say we believe.


To avoid the pain of acknowledging this discrepancy we cover up the problem through denial.


And then, without a second thought, we cover up the cover-up by denying our denial.  We make the problem and the cover-up undiscussable.


We cover, collude and retreat.  Nothing of real importance concerning how we work together is allowed to be raised.  We pretend this is normal.  We are trapped.  Good and proper!

This is not unique to bureaucratic institutions.  Chris Argyris describes the same thing happening with Andrew Grove at Intel.  He also gives many other examples from all walks of organisational life.  In fact he says he has found this in all of the 10 000 plus people with whom he has done this experiment.

How does defensive reasoning arise?

We all have strategies for getting what we want.  Specific strategies for every type of interaction in which we engage.  We activate them when required.  We manage these strategies in two ways.  First we talk about the strategies we say we believe, our Espoused Values.  Then we act according to a second set of strategies, which describe our Actual Values.  And here is the crux.  Your Actual Values may be quite different from your Espoused Values.  In fact this is most likely.  What is more, you are probably unaware of the inconsistency.

The actual ‘core values’ of most of us are consistent with what Prof Argyris called Model I:

  1. Be in unilateral control of the interaction.
  2. Win and do not lose.
  3. Suppress any negative feelings.
  4. Behave rationally.

Perhaps these look innocuous in this list.  But just a short reflection on how they play out in your life and your team will show you just how destructive this pattern of behaviour can be.  We use these strategies to defend ourselves from deep change.  And we get so good at them.  Part of this skill we develop is a defensive reasoning process in which, without thinking we deny or justify our behaviour.

“Organisational Traps” is not an easy read.  Oh it’s very readable.  Chris Argyris is the master.  But I kept looking ahead into the next chapter to find case-studies of how he got around these traps.  But in this book there are none.  He does however cover some of the popular consulting models for motivating teams.  He shows how they are deficient because they don’t address traps.  At first this looked like useful consulting material but then he shows how using consultants to implement change can be just as futile.  Perhaps more so.  His writing is refreshingly bleak and realistic.

There are success stories.  In a previous publication he presents his work with the executive team in a consulting business.  Specifically he describes how, with his help, the executive team took on a new set of values, what he called Model II:

  1. Seek valid (testable) information:  Get as close to the facts as you can.  Understand the limitations, assumptions and omissions in the information you have.
  2. Create informed choice:  Base your decisions on the facts and not on what others think or your need to avoid pain.
  3. Monitor vigilantly to detect and correct error:  First actively execute your decisions.  Then as you move forward keep testing that you are still collecting valid information and are making unbiased decisions.

Dealing with defensive reasoning in this way is a monumental task

It takes a robust, confident person to be able to do this.  Therefore this may be a life-time project.  However this is an approach in which a little change in behaviour can make a dramatic difference.

All the examples he uses in the book point to people who say one thing and do another, who set out to change but fall back into the Model I way or working.  Chris Argyris says that unless you take into account traps and how to avoid them, your change programme is likely to fail.  As I think back on some of the more difficult interactions in which I have been involved I can see how the adoption of Model II values would have made a big difference.

How does this look for you?

Is defensive reasoning torpedoing your strategy?