What are you hiding?

chessOrganizational behavior experts have been telling us for many years that one of the most common practices among managers is to conceal what is on their mind while pretending to be an open book.

This produces a smoke-and-mirrors scenario that must not appear to be such a thing because managers are not respected for being purposely deceptive. Chris Argyris termed this defensive strategy “fancy footwork.”  Robert Blake and Jane Mouton called it the “managerial facade.”

The general feature of all facades is that the person avoids revealing the contents of his own mind, yet, he gives the impression of doing so.”—Blake and Mouton

The result is an organizational stance that communicates “Problem? What problem?”

Argyris emphasized the concept of things that are undiscussable within an organization. The undiscussability is also undiscussable. Nobody admits there are subjects that are off-limits.

These experts get down to the nitty-gritty on how to work with these behaviors. Our collective response is that we do not care. The Managerial Grid, the book that contains Blake and Mouton’s analysis, was published in 1964, and in my lifetime fancy footwork has increased in scope and intensity.

Argyris emphasizes that organizational change requires managers and leaders to reveal their own struggle to change their behavior. They must stop creating the deception that everything is just fine.

An organizational defensive routine is any policy or action that inhibits individuals, groups, intergroups, and organizations from experiencing embarrassment or threat, and, at the same time, prevents the actors from identifying and reducing the causes of the embarrassment or threat.—Chris Argyris

What these experts, and many others, emphasize is that the greatest benefit to organizations comes from encouraging and promoting learning experiences. This requires good communication, informed choice, and candor about goals and intentions.

I don’t think we are likely as a society to suddenly develop a passion around fancy footwork or facades in the business environment. Other institutions such as churches and universities are not going to adopt this agenda either. Where I think we could bring this wisdom to bear and get some actual results is in the realm of government and politics.

In order to launch such a campaign we would need to abandon anger and contempt when we discuss how to govern and who should do it. Those attitudes provoke more defensiveness, and defensiveness leads to more fancy footwork.

We are not beholden to politicians in the same way we are to employers. We could practice and deepen our understanding of how to resolve defensive routines by launching our efforts there. In my view it should be appropriate for a candidate to share with the voters what his or her chief concerns are about the challenges that come with the office they are seeking. We ought not take this candor as a sign of weakness. By doing so we encourage defensive routines.

Changing our approach to honesty is hard work, but we have a lot to gain.



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