• Published: Aug 25, 2022
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Terry Kilmister and Graeme Nahkies, Good Governance #61, February 2008

Is yours a boardroom with a large, frightening secret that no one mentions? And no one mentions that no one mentions it, but everyone knows that it’s there? It’s likely been there for months—or probably longer—but the fear is that the mention might come out ‘wrong’. That, perhaps, the mentioner might be isolated, even set upon by those who do not want it mentioned.

Does this ‘gorilla in the room’ scenario sound familiar? It could relate to an incompetent chair, backroom dealings by one or more directors, collusion between the chair and the CEO. It could be that the directors are held captive by a domineering CEO or chair. Worse, it could implicate all the directors and the CEO, where everyone is caught up in illegality or unethical decisions.

Perhaps the board is seriously fractured to the point where it is largely ineffective as a functioning group, yet no one dares to state the obvious. Perhaps there is a dominant group that doesn’t want to draw attention to the benefits they enjoy from their dominance. Remaining board members don’t mention it because they don’t want to sound like whingeing losers. So, the board continues in a state of avoidance, even denial, pretending to be a team, trying to act ‘as if’ they are ‘one’ while all the time knowing that they are not.

In each of these situations we must wonder why, when faced with threatening or potentially embarrassing situations, otherwise competent and capable people can act in such an incompetent way?

Organisational psychologist and business writer Chris Argyris has studied hundreds of business groups including senior management teams and boards. In a wonderfully erudite and extended essay, he untangles the web of lies, denial, competent incompetence and plain organisational ineffectiveness in his short, but deeply insightful book, Overcoming Organisational Defences. [1]

In this article, we look at some of Argyris’s insights and set these in the context of the boardroom.

Defensive routines are learnt early in life

Argyris reminds us that from early in our lives we learn to subscribe to a set of social virtues designed to help us avoid embarrassment or threat. The following virtues in themselves are worthy but, when coupled with defensive reasoning and subsequent behaviour, they can be counterproductive:

Help and support: giving approval or praise even when it is not due, saying things, even if untrue, that you believe will make others feel good or will overcome hurt.

Respect for others: showing ‘respect’ by not confronting false reasoning or unusual behaviours.

Strength: we are encouraged to tell others what we think and feel, and to win by showing personal strength in the face of adversity. Vulnerability is seen as a sign of weakness.

Honesty: we are encouraged to tell no lies or to tell others all we think and feel, often in a confrontational manner.

Integrity: we are encouraged to stick to our values and beliefs as a fighting tool and in the process deny the validity of others’ values and beliefs.

These virtues should be mutually supportive. When a defensive interpretation is applied, however, this is not always the result. For example, even though a conversation might start with a (perhaps false) show of respect and caring—despite clear disagreement—as no common ground is found, one or other party will quickly adopt a position of strength and dig their toes in, sticking to their own values and beliefs. The party with the most power will win.

Children become familiar with these scenarios and skilled in these defensive behaviours early in life. According to Argyris, children quickly learn to act in ways that enable them to exercise a measure of control over their lives, especially when facing threat or embarrassment. This learning results in a set of rules that govern behaviours throughout the rest of life. The rules are based on two sets of theories; those based on beliefs that Argyris [2] calls ‘espoused theories’ and those that actually govern behaviour, called ‘theories-in-use’.

When what we think does not match what we do

Espoused theories (what we believe or say we believe), however, do not always match our theories-in-use and people are frequently not aware that this is the case. In other words. there is a mismatch between what we think we do and what we actually do.

Moreover, people become so skilled at managing this mismatch that there is no recognition of its existence. To be in control while also attempting to enable someone else to ‘save face’, we tell (white) lies and then cover up our lying, disguising this as ‘caring’. Distortions are created that do not get examined. Further, we do not talk about the fact that we have not examined the distortions, yet both parties know that they exist.

The result of this is two streams of thought and behaviour operating in tandem: the ‘above-the-ground’ stream of distortion and self-censored actions and behaviours, and the ‘underground’ stream of hidden knowledge.

When examined, much of the ‘above the ground’ action does not achieve good or worthy outcomes; yet it is the dominant behaviour in many, if not most, work groups. Under different circumstances these actions and behaviours would be considered a demonstration of ‘incompetence’. That so many people are so skilled in these behaviours leads to Argyris using the term ‘skilled incompetence’. [3]

This is real

Our work in senior management teams and with boards lead us to strongly agree with Argyris when he describes how the ‘above-the-ground’ behaviours dominate organisational life group life. Management teams don’t discuss the inadequacies of their manager or colleagues. They learn to live with and work their way around incompetence.

Directors accept, for example, poor leadership from their chairs, lack of real teamwork, dominating and domineering CEOs, shallow dialogue, poor strategic thinking and non-contributing or even dysfunctional peers. To confront these is potentially threatening or damaging. It’s easier to ‘go with the flow’, to believe the distortions rather than to address the dysfunctional issues.

Individuals, aware of their actions and the mismatch of these to their beliefs, avoid embarrassment by not owning up to the existence of the belief. Not only do we not discuss critical but potentially embarrassing or threatening issues, but we do not discuss the fact that we do not discuss them!

By accepting the ‘above-the-ground’ behaviours as the group reality, boards accept a level of incompetence that delivers sub-standard outcomes. The experience of boards that behave in this way is that they deny the potential of their directors to add real value to the board and the organisation. The broader wisdom of its members remains unavailable to the group. Resentment, hostility, resigned sadness and a deep level of dissatisfaction can result.

Practice makes perfect

Readers might deny that they practice these skills. Management writer Peter Block, [4] however, offers several common examples. How many times have you said or have heard said, ‘I don’t mean to interrupt, but …’? The fact is that you do mean to interrupt. That is exactly what is being deliberately done. Or ‘Thanks for the feedback’ when the feedback is not at all welcome.

Business dialogue is full of what Argyris describes as ‘fancy footwork’, [5] much of which is untestable because of the potential threat it contains. A commonly expressed example is, ‘Your performance is good, but I want you to undertake this professional development’.

What is really meant is, ‘Your performance is not good and if it does not improve you will not remain in this job’. And so on. When we practice ‘fancy footwork’ for low-level issues with low-level outcomes, it becomes easy to use it for high-level issues with high-level outcomes.

Bringing the truth to the surface

Addressing defensive behaviours requires both courage and skill. The latter can be learnt. When skilled practice results in good outcomes, the courage to use it more often is strengthened. What is required is a shift from ‘defensive reasoning’—characterised by evasiveness, dishonesty in the form of fancy footwork, untestable assumptions and ambiguity—to ‘productive reasoning’ [6] characterised by openness, honesty and testable statements.

A move from a defensive model to a productive model requires a change in behaviour and redefining the social virtues described earlier in this article.

Boardrooms could be healthier, more effective places

Because a boardroom is often the political heart of an organisation, drawing on the worst examples of ‘political’ behaviour (defensive reasoning) as described, is common. Relatively few boards achieve their potential to add real and meaningful value to the organisation governed because their ‘group behaviour’ model or board culture is rooted in defensive behaviours.

Argyris accepts the universality of the five social virtues and has redesigned the expression of these to provide a new way of working that produces helpful and competent ways of working. Each virtue is ascribed a productive interpretation. [7]

Help and support: help people confront their own truths and examine their assumptions and fears by modelling these ways when you interact with others.

Respect for others: assume that others are capable of self-reflection without losing effectiveness by reinforcing the way you help and support.

Strength: show vulnerability while at the same time demonstrating your own capacity for self inquiry and self-reflection. This is a different kind of strength.

Honesty: say the things you fear to say and encourage others to do the same. Reduce or minimise distortion, cover ups and fancy footwork.

Integrity: advocate for your principles in a way that allows or encourages examination of these and invite and encourage others to do the same.

Difficult conversations

Confronting defensive routines can mean engaging in difficult conversations. The principles and actions required to shift from defensive to productive behaviours involve many of the same skills and interpersonal processes.

Argyris [8] proposes a six-step method for addressing defensive behaviours. Readers who have undergone training in providing behavioural feedback will already be familiar with these:

  1. Diagnose the problem.
  2. Connect the diagnosis to the behaviour of the other person/persons.
  3. Describe how their action/s results in defensive or dysfunctional outcomes.
  4. Help them find new ways to act that will result in productive outcomes.
  5. Help them to change the defensive routine that reinforced the old behaviour.
  6. Develop new norms or cultural elements that reward the new behaviour.


1. Argyris, Chris. Overcoming Organisational Defences. Allyn and Bacon. Boston. 1990.
2. Argyris, Chris. 1990, op cit., p.13.
3. Argyris, Peter. 1990, op cit., p 21.
4. Block, Peter. The Empowered Manager: Positive Political Skills at Work. Jossey-Bass. San Francisco. 1987. P. 53-54. In Argyris, Chris. Overcoming Organisational Defences. Allyn and Bacon. Boston. 1990.
5. Argyris, Chris. 1990, op cit., p.46.
6. Argyris, Chris. 1990, op cit., p.105.
7. Argyris, Chris. 1990, op cit., p.106.
8. Argyris, Chris. 1990, op cit., p.155.