Volume 122, March 2013: Defensive Reasoning

Keyzine: An E-zine for Leaders about the People Side of Business

This is a monthly electronic magazine for anyone who wants to be a better leader, coach, facilitator, or simply, to tune up their people skills. It is a complimentary publication, devoted to the next evolution of Quality Thinking.

Publisher: © Key Associates, LLC, 2010 ISSN # 1545-8873

“How is it that (organizational) hierarchies, which espouse trust and honesty, skillfully produce cover-ups and cover up of the cover-ups?” – Chris Argyris

Chris Argyris wrote a break-through article called “Teaching Smart People How to Learn” (1991). He utilized the concept of defensive reasoning — behaviors designed to defend oneself from criticism and embarrassment, and to turn the blame to others. Most of us who have achieved high rank are well-educated, high-powered professionals, who are committed to excellence. We are also the toughest learners. Did we not achieve our stations through knowledge, by having the right answers when called for? We have become very good at defending our positions and deflecting blame elsewhere.

Instead of listening deeply, we often engage in an internal dialogue with ourselves, as we prepare our defense, in order to be right. New or opposing points of view are discouraged. The only kind of knowledge we are seeking is that which will validate our position. It is a bold step to let go of defensive reasoning, and position yourself as a leader who seeks the answers, rather than needing to have the answer all the time.

Being highly successful students and having very successful careers, we also have probably made very few mistakes, therefore we have never learned from them. We often do not know how to cope with failure. Self-esteem and high ideals have led us to an egocentric posture. We must be right: how else did we achieve such stature? There is great risk in striving to be viewed as all-knowing and infallible. For an organization, errors in thinking go unexamined, and poor decisions go uncorrected.

Truth is good for an organization. Courageously expose your assumptions, and allow others to examine them and produce their additional data and evidence for decision-making. Critically examine and test your theories-in-use.

Practice Point

Avoid cover-ups. Rather than using defensive or subjective reasoning, make explicit what you are thinking, then collect data from others and listen. “This is what I believe and why. What do you think?” Then present the other person’s case to their satisfaction. Together work for solutions. It’s time to change the method and mindset of defensive organizational thinking.


Argyris, Chris. Teaching Smart People How to Learn. Harvard Business Review, May-June 1991, 99-109.


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