A Leader’s Toolbox: Overcoming Defensive Reasoning

Chris Argyris was an author and leadership expert whose essay titled Teaching Smart People How to Learn presents us with timely insights into why some of the smartest, most self-motivated and result-oriented people often struggle with assessing their own performance. Argyris’ insights are the results corollary to many years of research among business sector consultants in some of the top firms in the country. He argues that although his research subjects hailed from the four greatest business schools in America, most struggled with learning from failure because of defensive reasoning that arises from a general fear of feeling vulnerable and incompetent. The author finds that some of the smartest people are great at problem solving by identifying the problem and taking direct action. This type of learning comes from years of academic study and applying the learned principles to solve real world problems. Argyris defends that this approach forms an “espoused” theory of action that is often inconsistent with what he labels as a “theory-in-use”.

Argyris argues that everyone develops a theory of action—a set of rules that individuals use to design and implement their own behavior as well as to understand the behavior of others. Usually, these theories of actions become so taken for granted that people don’t even realize they are using them. Nonetheless, the actual theory-in-use is contradictory. People consistently act inconsistently, unaware of the contradiction between their espoused theory and their theory-in-use, between the way they think they are acting and the way they really act.

This find is extremely important for several reasons. First, it identifies a general human propensity towards the idealization of a certain applaudable behavior. Secondly, it finds that some of the brightest and most objective thinkers are capable of contradictory behaviors between their espoused theory and the way they really act when their core competency is challenged. Thirdly and most importantly, it identifies that the fixation on the espoused theory hinders individuals from learning during times that they may need it the most. Challenging the espoused theory leads individuals down a path of defensive reasoning and doomed thinking, causing them to become hypercritical, aversive and accusative.

As a pastor and church leader, this insight causes me to do a fair amount of self-reflection. Let me give you an example. I once experienced a small crisis when attempting to provide a formative assessment of a sermon a co-pastor recently preached. What I intended to be a constructive and formative conversation suddenly turned into a defensive and accusative argument. It finally ended with my fellow co-pastor ironically exclaiming, “not all of us are theologians with Ph.Ds.” What I realized is that the formative assessment I attempted to model was something completely unprecedented and not a part of our leadership culture at church. Because it was unprecedented, it was interpreted as a summative assessment saying, “this is not good enough, you need to do better.” Additionally, I realized that I hadn’t submitted myself to the same sermon assessment I was attempting to model. I had never given my fellow pastors and staff members the opportunity to express how I could become a better preacher. Neither had I previously expressed any intent in providing or receiving formative assessments regarding our Sunday meetings.

My espoused theory of action was completely inconsistent with my theory-in-use. Chris Argyris’ research among mid-level consultants caused him to look more deeply into how they related to peers and senior management when confronted with the risk of failure. He found that defensive reasoning was consistent throughout the strati of the organization. He then asks, How can an organization begin to turn this situation around, to teach its members how to reason productively? The first step is for managers at the top to examine critically and change their own theories-in-use. Until senior managers become aware of how they reason defensively and the counterproductive consequences that result, there will be little real progress. Any change activity is likely to be just a fad. Since the episode with my fellow co-pastor, my approach has been to incorporate a segment to our weekly staff meetings where we assess everything about our Sunday gathering, including the sermon content and preacher.

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