Learning Organization – Dialogue & Defensive Routines

learning organization


When organizational learning occurs, the group IQ will exceed that of any individual member’s IQ.  Tapping into this increase is beneficial for organizational development.


One of the most impactful ideas in organizational communication is the mastery of dialogue and defensive routines.  Introduced to the business world in The Fifth Discipline, Senge (1990) discusses how these two concepts affect collaboration, trust, truthful and objective communication along with reflective reasoning.  Senge (1990) defines dialogue as the creative exploration of ideas between two or more people through inquiry and deep listening.  Interlinked with dialogue are the individual practices of defensive routines that people use in order to prevent injury and embarrassment that may come with exposing their thinking.  Understanding and recognizing these concepts will help an executive foster an environment that will lead to more efficient communication.


The approach to fostering superior communication depends on the executive’s perception of what an organization is. Is an organization viewed as an inanimate object to be controlled such as an automobile?  Or is it to be viewed as a living organism that adapts and evolves?  The average tenure of Fortune 500 firms is less than 40 years.  Roughly 20 companies have maintained their Fortune 500 status for more than two centuries.  With an ever changing business environment, sustainability may directly correlate with adaptability.

COMMAND & CONTROL: if an organization is viewed as an inanimate object, it is essential to exhibit a command and control approach to ensure the company is driven to progress.  An inanimate object cannot learn nor is it easily adaptable to environmental change.

LEARNING ORGANIZATION: if an organization is viewed as living and evolving, what within the organization comprises the life and adaptability?  If people, for example, are viewed as the company lifeblood then growing people is the catalyst to growing an organization.  Bill O’Brien, former CEO of Hanover Insurance stated in The Fifth Discipline (1990) “the best way to grow financial capital is through growing human capital.”


The more senior the leadership position held, the more difficult obtaining honest feedback becomes.  Decisions are based on known variables. Increasing known variables is required for superior decision making. Identifying increased variables requires an environment where contributors may share openly without the associated fear of exposing one’s thinking.

CREATING TRUST / POSITIONAL HIERARCHY: Without trust, team honesty can diminish. Since honesty is essential to company decisions, trust is pivotal.  Establishing trust requires mutual vulnerability. An executive that fosters a trusting atmosphere allows the team to open up without the fear of repercussion.  This requires titles and powers to be surrendered at the door. Leadership must surrender their power and subordinates must be willing to share openly as with a peer group. This will allow a free flow of information without being inhibited by positional hierarchy.

ASSUMPTIONS AND OBJECTIVE REALITY: Every day assumptions are made to fill the gap in data. This practice is counterproductive to team dialogue.  Personal reality is shaped by individual experience and observation. As a result, the understanding of common issues may differ between team members.  By holding assumptions and viewpoints up for peer analysis, the team is able to peel away perception from data.  This allows the group to focus on the data points (objective truth) and remove underlying perceptions (assumptive truth).

REFLECTION: It has been said that hindsight is 20/20.  This saying refers to the clarity one experiences through long-term reflection. If time through reflection provides clarity, how can this process be sped up to provide more real-time insight?  Through the frequent practice of reflection, team members will begin to gain insight into personal assumptions and start to more readily filter out data from their personal lens of reality.  This is an exercise in personal growth that benefits the whole of the team.  As Earnest Hemingway stated “there is nothing noble about being superior to your fellow man.  True nobility is being superior to one’s former self” and as Socrates suggested “an unexamined life is not worth living.”

THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN DIALOGUE AND DISCUSSION: dialogue is the process of inquiry without advocacy.  It allows for a deeper understanding of each other’s point of view which provides multiple viewpoints for consideration. As the Dalai Lama stated “When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know; but when you listen, you may learn something new.”  Discussion is the process of coming to a decision.  Through discussion, one advocates their viewpoint to the group for consideration.  This viewpoint must be held up for examination so that the group may identify what is in the best course of action.

EMOTIONAL REACTIVITY AND PERSONAL COMPOSURE: an untrained team may have difficulty separating their viewpoint from how they identify with it.  Passion is powerful energy that can fuel the group but misaligned can hinder communication.   It is therefore important that the person distinguish the viewpoint from the person themselves or defensive routines during examination may occur.  This separation allows the position to be evaluated by the group, focusing on the available data to come to an objective course of action.

COMMITMENT TO TRUTH AND COLLEAGUESHIP: Truth is essential to data integrity and superior communication.  Truth without colleagueship can create divides. Practicing the principles of respect, kindness, compassion and honesty enables conflict to be dealt with constructively not divisively.   Conflict arising from multiple viewpoints is essential to a learning organization.  Without conflicting viewpoints how would we learn?  The manner in which conflict is dealt with will determine the effectiveness of group learning.


A team that is ready to move forward with dialogue should first review the guidelines and recommended approach to maximize the value of the approach.   Below are some examples to get a team moving forward appropriately.

GUIDELINES: The purpose of dialogue is for a group IQ to exceed that of any individual member’s IQ. Establishing guidelines for dialogue will help the team to achieve this goal.  Physicist David Bohm in the Fifth Discipline (Senge, 1990) outlined three required conditions necessary for dialogue to occur; 1) participants must suspend and freely communication their assumptions with the group, 2) participants must treat each other with colleagueship, and 3) a facilitator should be used to maintain the framework and context of dialogue.

SUGGESTED APPROACH: Appoint a facilitator and write the guidelines visibly to the group.  The facilitator should be knowledgeable and helpful but not take on an “expert” role.  The focus should be on the members of the team, their ideas and responsibility.  Treat each other as colleagues. Colleagueship does not constitute agreement, but rather is a state of respectful treatment/behavior. Colleagueship is a prerequisite to trust which is essential for productive dialogue. Surrender titles and powers at the door.  The whole of the group should be participatory but not overbearing. One should inquire and then truly listen. Suspend assumptions but freely communicate these assumptions for evaluation and clarification.  Decisions will not be made in dialogue. Decisions will take place during the ensuing discussion phase.


An environment that fosters trust through mutual vulnerability with the absence of title and power paves the way for honesty.  Through the practice of dialogue, a team gains a thorough and deep understanding into multiple viewpoints for consideration.  When the team suspends assumptions and reviews how personal viewpoints may be skewed through perceptive reality, the team begins to focus on objective data.  Through the practice of frequent reflection, a team will increase its ability to recognize personal and group dynamics that may impede progress.  The art of discussion will allow a team, once the variables are known, to advocate different positions in order to come to a more informed decision.  When people feel heard, “buy in” with the decision is more readily accepted and therefore future commitment to the course of action improves.


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