Harvard Business School Working Knowledg e Archive

Surfacing Your Underground Organization

11/1/2004
Is your organization plagued with defensive reasoning? Harvard management scholar Chris Argyris says it's time to change the mindset of your company.

Does this sound like your company, department or work team? Criticism is shaken off as 'not our fault.' New or opposite points of view are discouraged. The organization becomes geared toward protecting itself through cover ups and even cover ups of cover ups. Misunderstandings escalate. Prophecies become self-fulfilling.

Recognized Harvard University management scholar Chris Argyris calls this the defensive reasoning mindset, and it leads to creation of an underground organization whose "existence is known, but where actions are rarely taken to correct its counterproductive effects, mainly because…those who share the defensive reasoning mindset believe they must continue doing so to prevent the organization from going out of control, from imploding," Argyris writes.

The results can be disastrous. "When these conditions are combined, a generic syndrome against learning is created," he writes in his recent book, Reasons and Rationalizations: The Limits to Organizational Knowledge. And if organizations don't learn, they develop incurable illnesses and even die.

By contrast, the "productive reasoning mindset produces validatable knowledge, informed choices, and transparent reasoning, so claims can be tested."

How does an organization get from defensive to productive? According to Argyris, organizations must adopt "double-loop learning," which challenges the status quo. And it's not easy. "Asking human beings to alter their theory-in-use is asking them to question the foundation of their sense of competence and self-confidence related to producing effective action. It is also asking them to design and implement organizations that do not encourage competitive infighting, unilateral control, and commitment to the dictates of organizational defensive routines. This is a tall order but we are learning it is doable."

Mallory Stark: Talk a little bit about productive and defensive routines.

Chris Argyris: There are two dominant mindsets in the world of business or any kind of organization.

One is a productive mindset, and it says it's a good idea to seek valid knowledge, it's a good idea to craft your conversations so you make explicit what you are thinking and trying to examine. You craft them in such a way that you can test, as clearly as you can, the validity of your claims. Truth is a good idea. All the managerial functions—accounting, all of them—have a fundamental notion that the productive mindset is what ought to be used to manage human beings.

Chris Argyris
Chris Argyris

Then there's another mindset I call the defensive mindset. The idea is that even if you are seeking valid knowledge, you are seeking only that kind of valid knowledge that protects yourself or your organization or your department—it is defensive. From a defensive mindset point of view, truth is a good idea when it isn't threatening or upsetting. If it is, massage it, spin it. But if you massage it and spin it, you're violating the espoused theory of good management. When you spin, you have to cover up the fact that you're spinning. And in order for a cover up to work, it too has to be covered up.

This leads to an organization that has an above-ground management world, and a below-ground management world. The above-ground one is the one we teach in managerial functions of all kinds. The below-ground is the one that we're talking about here, the defensive routines. Everybody knows about them, but when you ask the question, 'Why don't you surface them?' the answer is, 'Are you crazy?' If they do get surfaced, the automatic reaction is, 'It isn't me, it's the other person,' or ' I'm just a victim,' and so on. What we have is a set of defensive routines at all levels that protect this mindset.

Organizational defensive routines are any kind of action designed to protect the players, and do so in such a way that it prevents learning for what might be embarrassing or threatening. These defensive routines really support a defensive mindset, and they support it in an underground manner, not in an above-ground manner.

Q: How does an organization get rid of defensive routines?

A: In order to get rid of or reduce defensive routines, you need double-loop learning. Think of the thermostat in this room. It's programmed to maintain a constant temperature. Now, if the thermostat were ever to ask itself the question, 'Why am I programmed this way, and why should I measure heat?'—that's double-loop learning.

This leads to an organization that has an above-ground management world, and a below-ground management world.

If you have defensive routines and somebody says, let's tweak them a bit, that's single-loop learning. But if you ask a question, 'How come they're underground?' or 'How come people have this predisposition to say I'm a victim?'—that would be double-loop learning.

Lots of people espouse, in one form or another, double-loop learning. But it is how they actually behave from which we can infer, and there is a massive disconnect between what people espouse and what they say.

Q: Can you provide some examples of defensive routines in action?

A: Enron and Arthur Andersen. They would year after year receive awards for being an open company with first-rate management, an above-ground organization doing good things. The award givers never took a look at the underground system and its defenses. I know of examples where senior people in both Enron and Arthur Andersen knew what was going on, they were fearful. But when a whistleblower went to top management at Enron, they dealt with her in a distancing manner. They said, 'This is very good, thank you, we'll explore it,' and they never got back to her. And they never got back to the organization, which is more important.

The Catholic Church had the same problem. Double-loop learning doesn't state whether being a pedophile is a good thing or bad thing. What we focus on is, how come it was covered up, and what are the processes by which it was covered up?

Take a look at the Challenger and Columbia disasters. After the Challenger disaster, there was a big government investigation. They found out that single-loop issues had been corrected, but the ones that really baffled them were the lack of openness and communication among engineers and the manager. They said, we're going to change this. I think they did their best, but they did it by looking at above-ground rules and regulations.

With the Columbia disaster we had the same problem, lack of connection and so on. Yet (NASA) had gone through an intensive reorganization of the above-ground. None of the groups that studied the disasters took a serious look at the underground. That's where double-loop learning comes in.

I don't want to give the impression that somehow single-loop learning is bad. I'm guessing 75 percent of management anywhere works on single-loop learning. What I am trying to say is that what organizations need is a capacity to keep monitoring its underground as well as its above-ground.

Q: So how do individuals in organizations break through this bind?

A: Let me give a concrete example from a large global consulting firm—2,000 professionals. It was founded by people—several were faculty members here—who understood the problems of an underground and wanted to do something about it. We began with the top ten executives, the owners as well as the directors. We developed diagnostic ways to assess the degree to which they create underground, how they deal with the underground if it surfaces, and how we could then change it.

The first thing to do was help them see whether they are creating underground, because most people don't see it. It's a skillful awareness. Secondly, once they see it, then how do they change it?

We helped them develop the skills to become more effective in dealing with the underground organization. But the fact that they wanted to do this and said so, was not enough. What was very important was for the people just below the top ten to see that they were struggling with this issue.

It's not the theory that's difficult, it's the practice that's lacking. But the good thing is, you can practice while you're doing your work. If you're going to have a meeting that you know is a double-loop issue, underground and so on, one thing you and I can do is plan ahead.

By the way, the learning that they developed not only helped them inside, but it helped them with their clients. It helped them with producing services and products that no one else was offering. We gave them a jump-start, but it took the equivalent of several months for the actual behavioral changes to begin to be reinforced down at the next level.

For me, one of the important things is, not only did they begin to reduce the number and the strength of underground features, but they were able to strengthen their productive reasoning side and to help figure out how to strengthen the clients' productive reasoning.

Q: How does this underground, subversive behavior evolve? Maybe "subversive" isn't the right way to describe it.

A: Well, it's subversive of productive reasoning. I believe that our children are taught this early in life. When you are mature, you do your best at productive reasoning, but you are taught, 'Be careful. Don't embarrass anybody.' And the child responds, 'What do I do if I can't say the truth?' We teach our people to show a sense of concern about other human beings. There's a positive motive, but what we teach them to do is to cover up, and cover up that you're covering up.

The learning that they developed not only helped them inside, but it helped them with their clients.

We have found no differences in culture, age, gender, or size of organization. All people help to create productive reasoning and defensive reasoning. And in all organizations, the defensive reasoning goes underground—and it starts early in life.

Q: You are critical of scholars for not conducting research that would mitigate some of these counterproductive consequences.

A: One reason I came here was because I wanted to see if I could change this thing. I could work with one or two big corporations. What I really miscalculated was that I didn't realize how defensive teachers would get…

If I'm right, that all organizations have organizational defensive routines, and they're loaded with people using a defensive mindset, ask ourselves: Do we have a class here at Harvard or anywhere to teach us to be better at defensive routines? We don't do that. Nor do corporations. What we teach is the opposite. But all of this is alterable. You don't have to go through massive psychoanalysis. You can learn new ways of crafting knowledge, of confronting constructively, but with a degree of toughness. The toughness comes from working hard at being a person who protects seeking the truth, a person who says let's test this out.

Q: So, is this a direction that you think management scholars should pursue?

A: Yes, I do, and for two reasons. The first one is obvious. Hopefully, they'll produce knowledge that they aren't producing at the moment, that is, how to deal with the underground. But as the book shows (that book was primarily for academics) it shows that they, too, have a Model One orientation with producing rigorous research. And that's OK if you're doing finance and accounting and you're using productive reasoning, because there's very little underground to that. In fact, in accounting, you have to become a CPA, and if you ever go underground that's clearly a violation.

It's very important that what we do is to help scientists see that the knowledge they are producing stops when it hits the underground.

Mallory Stark is a career information librarian at Baker Library.