Overcoming fear of confrontation

Although we say we value openness, honesty, integrity, respect and caring, we act in ways that undercut these values, and this leads to us getting trapped by our own behaviour, according to Chris Argyris in his book Organizational Traps: Leadership, Culture, Organizational Design. Rather than being open and honest, we say one thing in public and do another in private. Then we deny that we are doing this, and cover up our denial.

The problem arises from a fear of confrontation. We would rather keep the peace than be honest, but there is a very high price to be paid. Organizational traps significantly impair the effectiveness of our organizations. The book contrasts defensive reasoning (Model I) with productive reasoning(Model II). Defensive reasoning, which is what people almost universally adopt in practice, has the following values:

  • Be in unilateral control
  • Win and do not lose
  • Suppress negative feelings
  • Behave rationally

Productive reasoning, which many people espouse but almost no-one actually adopts in practice, has the following values:

  • Seek valid (testable) information
  • Create informed choice
  • Monitor vigilantly to detect and correct error

I found the author’s arguments convincing, but by the end of the book I was pessimistic about the prospect of ever successfully overcoming organizational traps. The vast majority of the book is devoted to examples of people who failed to overcome organizational traps and explanations of why the different types of advice offered by leadership experts will not help. The author concludes by saying that changing to reduce organizational traps will not be easy, but we have no other choice.

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