Friday, December 14, 2018
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Living With Defensive Routines

Living With Defensive Routines

So how do people live with defensive routines? It turns out that living with defensive routines requires a defensive psychodynamic. There are five principle strategies that each of us deploys.

1. Feel helpless, powerless and fail to see the point. An aspect of this is to feel demotivated as well.
2. Become cynical
3. Blame others and the system
4. Produce the routine in others
5. Collude to avoid difficult people and situations.

Now let us examine each of these in more detail. As we do so it is worth reflecting on the self-reinforcing nature of a defensive routine. It transpires that when attempting to change a defensive routine, the first thing that happens is that is activated. Paradoxically, attempts to change a defensive routine can strengthen the limiting and anti-learning nature of such routines. As part of our seminar, we examine how to deal with this knotty problem.

1. Feeling helpless makes sense in the presence of a greater force. For most of us this means other people, particularly difficult people who are senior in the hierarchy to which we belong. Paradoxically, the more senior the executive in a classic monopoly culture (see ?Generic Cultures? and business transformation) the more difficult it becomes to constructively address and change the self-reinforcing practices that are usually embedded in the culture.

2. Become cynical. This is the tendency to sneer, diminish and generally ?dis? declarations about and behaviours that evidence good intentions. Conversations tend to be circular and focus on familiar issues, having the character of a ritual. Participants in meetings tend to contribute that which they know to be acceptable to others and in this and other ways seek the approval of others even if this produces a sub-optimal business result.

3. Blame others and the system. This can be quite insidious, placing the responsibility (or blame) onto others, to demand they change (so that we do not have to) takes people into power struggle with others. Even those whom we depend upon for deliverables that support us. This leads to a highly politicised feel to a business in which defend/attack behaviour is normal. In extremis this can lead to a cult of personality (which we call personality soup) in which the whole system gears itself to meeting the needs and gaining the approval of a few critical senior managers.

4. Produce the routine in others. Individuals talk about or deal with issues/problems in such a manner, that they are unaware of their own causal responsibility. How many managers blame another for the very difficulty that they themselves have initiated? At these critical moments the recipient can either take the behaviour, or risk further wrath by seeking to make causation discussable. At these times we learn our scripts and act them out when faced with a super-ordinate who asks us to accept responsibility for the very difficulty they have caused. We learn our place in the pecking order. Sadly these learnt behaviours can make us seem supportive (for which read, compliant and cynical) at the time of the discussion, it is only later when another understanding emerges that the support seems suspect. Most of us have experienced or commissioned the following at some point or another:

  • People who create arbitrary deadlines, without regard to existing workflows, thereby causing scheduling problems.
  • People who leap to solutions and decisions without having the relevant technical data or the least idea how they are impacting others.
  • People who infringe the responsibilities of others and attack when this is raised.
  • People who have a too difficult tray, and procrastinate (for a variety of rational but specious reasons) hoping the problems will go away.

5. Most of us are critical of defensive routines when we are on the receiving end, but fail to surface and examine our own when we deploy them. Not only are we unaware of our own but also vigorously resist any feedback that may make us aware. When we have unspoken agreements with others, collusion helps us to avoid collision. The rule to deal with situations that are potentially embarrassing or threatening is to bypass it by finding a familiar and comfortable displacement. The unspoken collusion is to make this bypass undiscussable and to make the undiscussability undiscussable.

Most people feel helpless to change defensive routines because the very attempt to engage demands huge energy and emotional commitment. In itself this inhibiting reaction feeds back into habitual low energy forms of behaviour that at defend us from the immediacy of the situation we face, whilst simultaneously guaranteeing that we layer up a number of unresolved issues into our lives. Some choice, open a can of worms with all the unpredictability of the outcome or live with the slow burn and stress of unresolved issues that are bypassed with others by unspoken collusive agreements.