Ask people what is wrong in their workplace and you can get an avalanche of woes and with just a little push, as many ideas for fixing them. At least that’s what it sounds like when nobody up the management hierarchy is present. Professor Chris Argyris of Harvard wrote about this a long time ago and frankly the cleaner could have told us that (An Interview with Chris Argyris). What he added were his observations of behaviours that seemed to maintain this situation – behaviours that undermined the ability of the organisation to learn and make appropriate changes. Behaviours that reinforced the social, power structure (hierarchy) and just as often the beliefs and attitudes people held about others. He called these behaviours ‘Organisational Defensive Routines’. Argyris identified that it took a lot of skill to use and maintain these routines. (They can be used to resist change.)
It has struck me that Argyris’s observations has similarities to the observations of Dr. Eric Berne who developed Transactional Analysis (TA) – an approach management trainers flirted with about three to four decades ago. Berne documented interactions in people’s lives that he referred to as ‘Games’. See ‘Games People Play’. Some of the games are relevant to work life and I’m sure we could identify a few that Dr. Berne has missed. One of the fun and obvious games is ‘Harassed’. Here people spend time complaining about workloads and how stressed the situation is. Importantly the participants never take positive steps to rationalise the work and will even take on new tasks. There can be auxiliary games like ‘Lunchbox’ which revolves around eating at your desk, avoiding structured breaks and appearing very committed. The games have a number of benefits including ready-made explanations for any failures/delays/poor standards and evidence of irrational managerial indifference to staff and workloads etcetera. At some point everybody is unhappy with the situation, however in the way that they are supposed to be, leading to the paradoxical conclusion that everybody is happily unhappy.
Both Argyris’s defensive routines and Berne’s ‘Games’ require skill, both have the need to appear rational (at least superficially), both seek to maintain beliefs about the self and others and both can work to maintain the status quo or power relationship, no matter how dysfunctional. One point of difference is that defensive routines mostly shut down real discussion while ‘games’ may require you to engage in the discussion to take it to it’s natural conclusion.
Both approaches to understanding have been around since the 1970s and probably before. Regardless, only rarely are defensive routines or games dealt with directly. Perhaps because it takes some effort, awareness and skill and dealing with them would defeat the purpose of having them in the first place (paradox). Note: the people who are good at office politics are often good at the both.
Commentators will tell you organisations have changed – expectations, attitudes, technologies, job designs and more. We are now after more than twenty years of focusing on leadership development supposed to have different expectations of executives, managers and team members, including consultation, better feedback, more autonomy etcetera. And while there has been significant changes, with greater expectations of equality of both gender and race (not yet realised), there is still a huge gap between the accepted wisdom and the actual behaviour in the workplace. Are we really so different that defensive routines and games have disappeared, that we would not seek to rationalise and justify our beliefs, that we could at times operate from motives that are not and cannot be shared openly with others. I don’t think so (opinion). We have not evolved that much. Rather my experience suggests that strategies and routines are evolving to our changing context – more intense information environment, higher levels of education, generational change etc. I also expect they could be getting more complex.
Importantly, the evolution of the defensive routines and games occur as people find ways to exploit changes in the stated values, attitudes and standards of behaviour (memes and meme clusters). What is true within an organisation is also true at a social and political level, though the actual tactics will differ and the consequences will be more profound and sometimes even dangerous.
The following are traditional and simple examples:
Simple Defensive Routine: Calling somebody defensive. The intention is to shut down the person arguing their point without having to deal with their arguments or feelings. Any further discussion is used to prove the accuser right and provide a reason for not listening further. The accuser could well be right (so it seems rational) and in some cases harmless. The paradox: Accusing somebody else of being defensive is a simple and traditional defensive routine – how good is that. It is important in a corporate environment to not be seen as defensive or ‘resistant’ (see Change).
Simple Game: Yes But! After taking you into their confidence and asking you for advice, the recipient of the advice dismisses each suggestion, “Yes, but ….” demonstrating that in the end you are not as clever as you thought and they are probably smarter. It started out feeling like an adult, rational discussion and ends with you feeling dominated and frustrated.
What to Do?
1. Firstly is to recognise when a Game or Defensive Routine is being used. Not always easy when in the situation though negative emotions are often an indicator.
2. Making moves that are not expected is often helpful. For example, asking questions rather than answering them.
3. Calling the behaviour can work sometimes and have negative outcomes other times so that’s risky depending on your skills and role. Calling your boss out on their bad behaviour can make life miserable.
4. Context is everything and three things help: Protection, Power and Permission
More on these topics later!
Peter O’Reilly ©