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Chris Argyris
Overcoming Organizational Defenses

Chris Argyris’ book, Overcoming Organizational Defenses, is must-read for people who want to see the day-to-day operation of the Invisible Bureaucracy™ in action. This book is dense and is not an easy read, but the pay-off for staying with the material is much deeper insight into the organizational and individual behaviors that create, reinforce, and maintain organizational culture. For Argyris, organizational defenses are actions and interactions that emerge in response to the embarrassment or threat associated with human error within the context of an organization’s culture. For example, an company’s formally stated policy is that the way for employees to get ahead is to work hard and gain operational experience, but it becomes apparent that the real criteria for getting promoted is who you know, not what you know or do. If this duplicity becomes a matter of public scrutiny, organizational defenses will most likely arise and follow four steps. Those responsible will: a) try to by-pass the issue, b) give inconsistent messages about what the issue “means”, c) cover-up the incident and make it undiscussible, and finally, d) cover-up the cover-up and make the undiscussibility undiscussible.

Argyris offers two explanations for such behavior. The first is that people are not aware of this behavior even while they are doing it. The second explanation is that people know what they are doing, but they have found ways to make their actions look unproblematic. For Argyris, both explanations have validity. Some people really are not aware that they are producing errors and acting defensively because these behaviors happen on autopilot and emerge from the tacit assumptions and beliefs of organizational culture, e.g. that’s just how we do it around here. Argyris calls this skilled incompetence. Other people when confronted about such behaviors run through some version of the four steps described above trying to make the issue look like it’s not an issue, e.g. they cover-up. One celebrated example that Argyris refers to is the communications problems that NASA’s organizational defenses helped to cause during the Roger’s Commission’s investigation of the Challenger disaster where “group think” and cover-up was deeply entrenched at all levels of the NASA organization. Less prominent examples of organizational defenses are legion. For example, a company says it values the feedback of its customers, but the processes made available to customers to give feedback make giving feedback almost impossible, e.g. e-mails that go into a black-hole, calls that go unreturned, and suggestions for improvement that are accepted for action, but go unimplemented. This book is an eye-opener that helps make the Invisible Bureaucracy™ of organizational culture visible in new and insightful ways by exploring the causal relationship between collectively held and shared cultural norms, and the behavior of individuals who act out these cultural edicts on the stage of day-to-day operations.

 

 

 
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