An Introduction to
Organizational Defensive Routines
Part One: Introduction
Overall, this little exercise names:
In your scenario, if you chose not to talk to this person directly and honestly about your problem, you have just engaged in self-censoring behaviour. This is a very common practice, isnt it not saying what is actually on our mind. Heres an example of self-censoring behaviour. You walk into your boss office, and pitch him on your new proposal. The boss replies by saying:
But when you leave the office, what you were told leads you to believe that your boss liked the idea and will give it serious consideration. The boss said these things to spare your feelings, but in the process set up some false expectations. In the long run when the boss doesnt act on your suggestions you will feel more hurt and angry than if he dealt with the issue up front in the first place.
Take a real life church example: you have a person who keenly volunteers every year to teach the grade 7 Sunday school class, but the kids hate her. Every year the grade 7 class declines throughout the year and the kids (at this critical age for church involvement) never seem to come back after that. The leaders know this is a problem, but they dont want to deal with what will probably be a highly emotional issue if they face it. Instead they are willing to sacrifice class after class of grade 7 kids instead. But, when you think about it, what really needs to be done??? What is important here?
Why do we self-censor ourselves in discussion?
A personal story of self-censoring behaviour in action:
This kind of behaviour is "normal and predictable"
This is the core emotional tension of Organizational Defensives.
Part Two: Defining Organizational Defenses
This behaviour can be so simple and personal
A woman loaned out a book to a friend, but the friend receiving the book never returned it. The book owner wanted it back, but couldnt bring herself to ask for it. Why? She did not want the borrower to feel embarrassed. So instead, she invited the book borrower to a meeting! The woman hoped that the book borrower would think, "Well, since Im going to see my friend at this meeting, Ill take the book along with me and return it". Rather than deal with the problem directly, the book owner planned a "by-pass" in the hopes that the by-pass would achieve indirectly what she wanted to happen. The day of the meeting came, the woman who borrowed the book attended, and she changed the dynamics of the group substantially. The meeting went poorly. The by-pass had unexpected consequences (how the meeting went) and the goal (the return of the book) was not achieved.
Organizational Defenses, then, impede change. As we tend to give priority to avoiding the stress of the feelings of threat and embarrassment, we seek to push the threat away without dealing with the root cause of the threat the needed change.
Part Three: Routines for Organizational Defense
There are certain common habits that we (individuals and groups) tend to use:
THE FIRST GROUP OF GENERALIZED ORGANIZATIONAL DEFENSIVE ROUTINES ARE THE ONES WHICH PREVENT US FROM GOING TO THE PLACE OF ANXIETY IN THE FIRST PLACE:
A] Avoidance Mechanisms:
While many people and groups use these mechanisms for many different reasons, all of them are popularly used to impede change.
THE SECOND GROUP OF ROUTINES WHICH FOLLOW HELP PEOPLE DEAL WITH THEIR ANXIETY IF THEY HAVE TO GO TO THE HARD PLACE:
B] Superficial Analysis
By staying with the symptomatic we can avoid the root issues. We may not want to go where the real problem is, so talk is left on the surface.
A common example: a man has been slowly going deaf, but for years he would not acknowledge it. His answer for a long time was "people do not speak clearly enough". This form of denial in this simple analysis meant he didnt really have to confront the real problem. In his analysis the problem belonged to other people. In fact, people compensated for him, thus he managed with his hearing loss for quite some time.
In church life a version of Superficial Analysis frequently used is called "blame the victim". For example, most churches on a regular basis try to answer the question "why arent the young people coming out to church?" The answers, frequently, put all the burden and responsibility on the young people themselves (their lack of interest or commitment, their turning away from their upbringing, their secular ways, their priorities, etc). One tends not to hear assessments by the church of its life and what it has done to prompt younger people to stay away. Have you ever noticed how we tend to judge others by their actions but judge ourselves by our intentions? It is safer to put the responsibility all out there and more comfortable to avoid the stress of reflection and change for us. But when this kind of Superficial Analysis happens, the real change a church needs to make and can control will not happen.
C] We work with Untested Assumptions
We can blind-side ourselves in real situations by making assumptions about reality rather than try to appreciate reality. Yet it can be far more comfortable staying with our assumptions since that means we dont have to deal with the fallout for us of questioning and changing our assumptions.
For example, most congregations would say that evangelism is an aspect of our Christian mission. An idea, which had a great deal of currency for a time, was called "Church as Evangelist". The idea was that the best witness is the church in action, so we should be a good, welcoming church that is totally user friendly for the non-Christian. Then, when they come, they will discover what the faith is by watching us. It sounds great until you unpack the Untested Assumptions:
In reality, many non-Christians are touched by seeing a vital, living faith in a Christian, lived out in a way that demonstrates that God does make a positive and meaningful difference in the life of this Christian. Christians living faith out in the secular world with integrity impress them. The burden, then, is totally on the Christian to go to where these people are most comfortable, and demonstrate vital faith in terms which are understandable, honest and attractive to the non-Christian. But this puts a huge demand on us as Christians to change and grow to become meaningful witnesses for Christ. In light of this, it is safer for the Christian to live with the untested assumptions about what is needed for faith sharing, since it is less embarrassing ("Im not capable to do this!") and less threatening ("I cant make these huge changes!") and less demanding for us.
D] "By-Pass and Cover-Up"
This is, unfortunately, very common even in churches. For example:
A presbytery had been involved with a congregation in a very difficult situation that did not go well. In the Presbytery people held very different opinions on what had happened and emotions were running very high. However, a "truce" was unofficially declared, and the topic was dropped. Everyone seemed to silently agree that these events were "non-discussibles". The executive of the Presbytery felt that the Presbytery owed an apology to the congregation for how it was treated. The letter was written, saying, "the Presbytery apologizes ." and was signed by the Presbytery Clerk as its clerk. The executive took this dramatic action on behalf of but without the permission of the Presbytery, and then kept that action secret. Wanting to act, but not wanting to risk more conflict, the executive by-passed the Presbytery process and then covered up their actions. As you might guess, a few people found out about this after the fact, and the executive found itself in an embarrassing and heated situation.
This Presbytery had an experience that went badly. What was needed was a discussion a debriefing of its actions. Actually talking about a letter of apology would have provided the focus for the Presbytery to work through the history of the events, learn from them, and move on to not repeat them. It would be a growing point. Instead, rather than do what would be most helpful in the long term, people reacted to the threats of the emotional situation in the short term.
E] "Fancy Footwork"
This is about being inconsistent in what one does in the life of a church, playing loosely with rules and practices in some situations and then being firm and difficult in others. Challenges prompting change can be stymied by taking a different approach to "how we do things".
For example, a majority of members of the Board of Managers are not happy with the recent decision by Session to add contemporary music to the worship service. The Session asks the Board if they can find money to purchase a drum set for the sanctuary. The Board has some trust funds available, which have been used for such purchases in the past for items not planned for in the congregational budget. The Trust Fund has some written guidelines that provide a modest degree of control on what the monies can be used for and how much can be spent in any one year. The Board has a history of not being consistent in how they apply these guidelines. When the Board has been excited by the proposed purchases they have been known to bend the guidelines quite liberally to ensure the purchase was made. However, the proposed drum set purchase has the majority of the members concerned. In this case the guidelines are interpretted so conservatively that they were able to deny the request.
F] Not debriefing a groups actions
This is probably the most common defensive routine in any organization. One of the greatest learning points for improving a congregations life is to spend time after some change or activity reviewing how things went with the goal of learning from experience for the sake of future action. However, such reviews always present the potential of naming problems, hang-ups and errors . things which may point back to people. Debriefs like this can be perceived as threatening and possibly be embarrassing. The consequence can be that a mistake can be repeated time and again because people are more concerned about potentially hurting people.
For example, I ran an 8-week program on spiritual gifts. At the end people thanked me for the course. But, before they could go, I passed out an evaluation form on the program. I learned that people liked it, but everyone thought it was too long. Simply by having people review the course I was able to improve it for those who would take it the next time.
An Example of the Routines Used in Combination A True Story
A Presbytery Executive was discussing the upcoming business before the court. One item was a congregation that had decided to no longer pay its Presbytery Assessment. The members of the executive dealt with the matter through "superficial analysis". The response to the situation was simply: "They cant do this. We will send two from this committee to talk to the Session". For them the issue was settled. One executive member raised a question, however, "But why did they choose to do this? What is the underlying issue which prompted this response?". The executive did not want to do anything more than superficial analysis. The one minister pursued the issue further, suggesting that the congregation in question lacked a sense of connectedness to the Presbytery and the wider Presbyterian Church.
The next item of business had to do with presbytery membership. A congregation was asked to name a Parity Elder. This meant that two of the elders from that Session would attend the Presbytery. Word came back that this Session barely managed to guilt one elder into attending Presbytery. They could not provide a second representative. The executive again responded with superficial analysis, quickly naming a solution, "Well just ask another congregation to send an extra elder then". That one minister noted the similarity in these two items of business. This one too was about congregations not feeling a sense of connectedness to the church beyond the life of the congregation. She raised this again this time managing to prompt a real discussion about the issue. The members of the committee agreed that this was "a sad state" and then went to proceed on to the next point of business. This is "death in the drawer". This one minister would not let it go so quietly and pushed them to agree to make some response. The committee agreed that this was a concern of the Congregational Life Committee of Presbytery. With that statement they again pressed to move on to the next item of business. However, no representative of the Congregational Life Committee was present, and no plans were made to encourage that committee to pursue this matter. This is called "strategic ineffectiveness": taking actions that will not change anything. Undaunted she pressed the Executive to minute the concern, table it, and raise it at their next meeting to ensure that the responsible committee would be asked to take up this issue. As I understand it the whole committee sat in dead silence for 30 seconds until one executive members finally said, "Fine".
What transpired? The two ministers went out to visit the dissenting congregation and was told in no uncertain terms by the Session that they knew the rules, they fully appreciated what their decision meant and that they would not be changing their mind. There were other expenses in their congregations life which, frankly, had a greater priority than Presbytery. The Sessions clarity, forthrightness, determination and courtesy surprised the visitors. When this was reported to the Executive the members of the committee quietly expressed their outrage, but then simply let the issue drop. This was "death in the drawer" since the committee ended up being indecisive about their response. As for passing on the concern for the decline in connectionalism among the churches, this was not even mentioned at the meeting and never passed on to the Congregational Life Committee. This could be labeled as "fancy footwork" as they were playing fast and loose with their own procedures.
Why did this happen? The executive really did not want to face the issue of growing congregationalism. By acknowledging it as very real they would be forced to take a further step by way of response. They simply did not want to go there, and so the committee utilized a variety of defensive routines to shut down the issue.
How Can We Deal with Organizational Defensive Routines:
I hope by now you have recalled your own examples of these routines in the life of your own church. While any of these can be used at any time, groups such as a church or a committee typically have a couple of routines which they habitually use. The following suggestions can help you overcome these routines and get beyond them to the business that needs to be done in your church.
1] Develop an ability to observe your organizations behaviour even while you are engaged in it
2] Learn the basic defensive routines
3] Learn what routines your organization relies on:
4] Conversely, learn the "sensitive topics" that people dance around:
5] Dealing the the various routines:
Parting Thought: You can have one basic attitude that can prompt you into action:
For Further Reading:
Overcoming Organizational Defenses: Facilitating Organizational Learning by Chris Argyris. Prentice Hall, 1990.
The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of Learning Organizations by Peter Senge. Doubleday, 1990.
Paper prepared by: Rev. Peter Coutts St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church, Calgary 7 July 2000