Organizational Traps: Leadership, Culture, Organizational Design

Human Resource Management International Digest

ISSN: 0967-0734

Article publication date: 30 August 2011



(2011), "Organizational Traps: Leadership, Culture, Organizational Design", Human Resource Management International Digest, Vol. 19 No. 6.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Organizational Traps: Leadership, Culture, Organizational Design

Article Type: Suggested reading From: Human Resource Management International Digest, Volume 19, Issue 6

Chris Argyris,Oxford University Press, 2010, ISBN: 9780199586165

Despite the abundance of books published in recent years on leadership and culture, it is difficult to name many that are truly exceptional. This latest one, by Chris Argyris, is on my list. Argyris has once again examined difficult issues in organizations and delivered a book that describes simply and clearly why change is so difficult.

Before now the conventional yet vague wisdom has been that people are not able to change until they are “ready”. Argyris has defined how and why people who have a sincere intention to change cannot help but sabotage themselves and then make the reasons “undiscussable”. We are not talking about a few dysfunctional leaders. I found myself in these pages, along with many able and good-hearted colleagues.

The book begins with an introduction describing the traps – a word that is always capitalized in the text. People in organizations are perpetually stymied and frustrated by the same conflicts or the avoidance of those conflicts. Although people say they value openness, honesty, respect, integrity and caring, they undercut those values to avoid disruptive change, all the while covering up the denial of these contradictory actions and behaviors – that is the “undiscussable” part.

The book is divided into two parts, with the intriguing titles of “Why we act against our own stated interests” and “How conventional approaches bypass traps – and what to do about it”.

Part I contains three chapters. Chapter 1 begins with two examples to show how leaders often deal with difficult situations. One involves former US Secretary of State Dean Rusk, who was asked by then-President Lyndon Johnson to transform the State Department’s negative reputation characterized by lack of openness, transparency and trust. Rusk began by calling a meeting of his top officials. He asked them for a plan based on a similar implementation in the Department of Defense – if they agreed it was applicable to their workplace. He promised to champion their effort with enthusiasm.

After presentations were made to the assembled team there was … silence.

Later, when an ambassador known for his clear thinking and straightforward speaking was asked why he did not speak up, he answered: “It wouldn’t have been appropriate.” Further, when Rusk was asked why he did not tell the ambassador that he was invited to the meeting to speak his mind, Rusk responded: “Because it wasn’t appropriate.” And there you see the trap. Despite consciously wanting to move toward more transparency, the way is blocked by old habits, attitudes and culture. Argyris gives several more examples: Andrew Grove, of Intel; several not-so-famous leaders; and a group of MBA students.

When I read the first few examples, and before I got to the explanations, I wondered: “So where are the traps? This sounds like how most companies I know do business.” And then it dawned on me – here is the perniciousness of the traps. People and organizations get stuck in patterns of behavior that become invisible, unchallengeable and undiscussable, and yet are strongly shielded from inspection or attack. In other words, they are trapped.

Argyris concludes Part I with a description of the causes of traps, which reduces to the difference between “theory-in-use” (Model I) and “espoused theory” (Model II). Model I is also called “defensive reasoning” and is generated to protect and defend the individual from “fundamental disruptive change”, especially that brought by embracing Model II.

In Part II, Argyris explains that while we are trapped, we are not victims. We are trapped by our own behavior. The cure can occur when we begin to diagnose our own behavior, specifically our Model I, and continue to work at it until we can honestly acknowledge the denials (and the denials of the denials) as counterproductive.

This is easier said than done. Argyris looks at several examples and presents more cases, including one based on Royal Dutch/Shell. He explains the limitations and inadequacies of the current management-research processes and moves on to describing where consultants lose their way, and how several current approaches, such as the ambidextrous organization and the human-potential movement, could be strengthened.

The book would be useful for scholars, leaders, organizational-development and organizational-change specialists and employees at all levels. A possible frustration for readers might be the desire for a “field guide” of how to blend theories-in-use with espoused theories to effectively avoid traps. In his examples, Argyris describes the use of his left-hand-right-hand case method and how to achieve double or even triple-loop learning, but these techniques would be best as part of an integrated approach.

I look forward to a future publication that advances the brilliant insights of this book.

Reviewed by Avis Austin, Belmont, California, USA.

A longer version of this review was originally published in Leadership & Organization Development Journal, Vol. 32 No. 2, 2011.

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