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Defensive Reasoning Derails Learning

Continuous improvement and staying competitive cannot happen without learning. A learning team always delivers outstanding results, consistently. Learning what works best and how to maintain that. However, the more experts (smart people) on a team and the higher the level of education of team members, the less likely they are to share knowledge freely, learn from one another, shift workloads flexibly to break up unexpected bottlenecks, help one another to complete jobs and meet deadlines, and share resources – in other words, to collaborate. This is some of the latest findings from extensive empirical research from Harvard University graduate schools of business and education. What’s more, those members of the team (smart people) that many assume to be the best at learning are, in fact, not very good at it. Intégro can attest to that.

The reason: they misunderstand what learning is and how to bring it about. As a result, they tend to make two mistakes in their efforts to become a learning team. First, learning is defined too narrowly as mere “problem solving”, so they focus on identifying and correcting errors in the external environment. Solving problems is important. However, if learning is to persist, managers and team members must learn to look inward, which they often do not do, mistake number two. They need to reflect critically on their own behaviour, identify the ways they often inadvertently contribute to the team’s problems, and then change how they act. In particular, they must learn how the very way they go about defining and solving problems can be a source of problems in its own right.


A definition of learning Intégro advocates is; ‘Learning is a process when experience leads to a change of something in a person that is characterised by different behaviours, resulting in a benefit and advantage to the person’. It’s a case of action and reflection. Smart people are usually enthusiastic about continuous improvement – and often the biggest obstacle to its success. Rather, the key factor is the way they reason about their behaviour and that of others. Reasoning is based on what people believe – beliefs dictate people’s values, consciously or unconsciously.


Beliefs and Values are cognitive constructs. Values and needs drive human motivation. However, actions often contradict that what people say they believe in. This creates an internal dissonance and conflict between actions and values. Four specific beliefs, usually unconscious, often influence the way managers behave; 1. To remain in (unilateral) control; 2. To maximise “winning” & minimise “losing”; 3. To suppress negative feelings; and 4. To be as “rational” as possible. The purpose of all these beliefs is self-serving, to avoid embarrassment or threat, feeling vulnerable or incompetent. Consequently, a defensive perception and mind-set emerge.

Defensive Reasoning

Defensive reasoning encourages individuals to keep private the premises, inferences, conclusions and intentions that shape their behaviour to avoid exposing and testing them in a truly independent, objective fashion. Because the attributions that go into defensive reasoning are never really tested, it is a closed loop, remarkably impervious to opposing or conflicting points of views. The inevitable reaction to the observation that somebody is reasoning defensively is yet more defensive reasoning. Needles to say, such modus operandi short-circuits and blocks learning. Until team leaders and managers become aware of how they reason defensively, through feedback, and the counterproductive consequences that result, there will be little real progress, if at all.   

Productive Reasoning

To question someone else’s reasoning is not a sign of mistrust but a valuable opportunity for learning. Reasoning is influenced by your point of reference and intention. Your point of reference will create your boundaries and as a result your limitations and intention – of feelings, thoughts and behaviours. If your point of reference is, for example, that of a ‘manager’ talking to a ‘subordinate’ vs. a team mate talking to a team mate, the affects and results will be vastly different. Put another way, the way you talk to your father/mother is very different to the way you talk to your best mate, because of your different points of reference.

The essence of communication is intention. The solution is to clarify your intention for yourself first and then act accordingly. The purpose of productive reasoning is to understand before being understood. Productive reasoning builds trust. That is, being reliable, open, straightforward and accepting of the other person and their point of view, despite the possibility of disagreeing with it. Productive reasoning is laying the groundwork for continuous improvement that is truly continuous. It’s a case of learning how to learn.