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Managers: on the defensive.

Managers: On the Defensive

Although the theories, findings, and attendant interpretations contained in the vast expanse of management literature have been and will continue to be debated, one finding has almost universal acceptance. Management theorists, researchers, and consultants approach their craft with their own explicit and/or implicit values - values that shape both the conduct and content of the inquiry. Perhaps one of the most dominant values espoused in the management literature and by management consultants is that trust, candor, and supportiveness are preferable to distrust, guardedness, and defensiveness. One could even argue that this value serves as a founding principle of the Human Relations School of Management.

As a researcher and consultant, I too labor with implicit and explicit values and accept (intuitively, empirically, and as an article of faith) that trust and openness are preferable to distrust and guardedness. I do not quarrel with the import, humanistic intent, or philosophical bases of this value. What I do find troublesome, however, is one of the major implications of this value. Simply stated, consultants and researchers have a tendency to label guarded communication in organizational hierarchies as dysfunctional, manifested by insecure and distrusting managers.

This article challenges the validity of this tendency and explores a theme suggested by a top manager of a Fortune 500 company. In the context of a research project focusing on cultural change, the manager in question leaned forward in his chair, raised his voice slightly, and said:

The problem with you Ph.D. types is that

you don't live in this organization. You

aren't taking the risks, I am. I have to

live with the long-term and short-term

consequences of what I say or don't say.

I once saw a poster that said some paranoid

people really do have people talking

about them. Let me ask you - how

do you know that my distrust is based

on paranoia and not perceptiveness?

Interesting question indeed. Are management consultants driven by a value espousing candor and openness obviously well intentioned but at times inappropriate? Are we labeling attitudes and behaviors as paranoid when in fact they may be rational and perceptive? And finally, are there guidelines that managers and consultants could follow when deciding where to draw the line between distrust based on paranoia and distrust based on perceptiveness?

Consequences of the Openness Value

Again, I do not challenge the basic tenet of communication founded on trust, openness, and supportiveness. As a student of and participant in the corporate drama, I am convinced that candid, open discourse can in fact be liberating and create supportive relationships, whereas guarded, manipulative discourse can be immuring and create defensive reactions. Moreover, a considerable body of data reinforces the conclusion that supportive communication climates are linked to job satisfaction and various indices of organizational performance. Gordon's (1988) summary of the consequences of supportive versus defensive communication provides a persuasive argument for supportiveness: "[W]hen people feel defensive they want to strike out; when they feel understood they want to reach out. When people feel defensive they want to do something to the other person; when they feel understood they want to do something for the other person and for people in general."

But there are at least two potentially negative consequences when the apparently benign and well-intentioned value of openness and supportiveness drives the prescriptions of management consultants. The first is that we are likely to admonish managers to be open and candid regardless of the situational constraints they encounter. Second, we are likely to view guarded communication as abnormal, dysfunctional, or "paranoid."

I am not the first to challenge managerial prescriptions and organizational development strategies driven by openness, trust, and candor. In the 1960s and 1970s, at the height of the human potential movement, several management scholars questioned the wisdom of training managers to "let it all hang out." Chief among their concerns was the problem created by training managers to provide authentic feedback to their organizational colleagues, when these colleagues may not have been trained to receive this feedback or counseled concerning the therapeutic value of authenticity. More than one case study of sensitivity training warns against openness and honesty when compared to the cost of potential career suicide and psychological casualties.

These earlier caveats were based on the premise that even though the organization may not be a jungle, it is also not a utopia. Authentic feedback in the confines of a regulated and insulated T-Group is one thing - candor when your abrasive boss asks you to comment on his management style is something else.

Movers and shakers of the corporate world apparently concur with this situational approach toward candor. A survey conducted of 858 Wall Street Journal subscribers concludes that even though 93 percent believe "lying is wrong," they nonetheless believe it is justified to protect company secrets (46 percent), avoid upsetting bosses and colleagues (13 percent), and avoid negative publicity (12 percent). Moreover, 48 percent agreed that "lying isn't always a bad thing" and 64 percent stated that "I sometimes tell lies."

Thus, admonishing organizational members to be open and authentic in relationships with their peers, bosses, subordinates, customers, and vendors is a value apparently presenting few problems for those consultants outside the system who need not live with the consequences of "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth." For those who must live with the consequences, however, a clash of values ("It's wrong to lie" vs. "I sometimes lie") can cause considerable discomfort - especially if the manager strives for consistency between beliefs and behavior. The previously quoted executive captures the essence of this internal conflict and externally imposed guilt:

Listen, I've attended enough seminars

and read enough self-help books to

know that relationships ought to be

based on honesty and mutual support.

But I've also managed long enough in

this company and other companies to

know that honesty can hurt both parties

and the organization. The principle isn't

always worth the cost of hurt feelings

and ruined relationships. And I think it's

wrong for consultants to treat me as if

my values are all screwed up for believing

this. Bottom line . . . are there any

conditions when you guys would tell me

I should not feel guilty about being

guarded in my communication?

The second negative consequence of this value is that organizational members who are less than authentic and supportive in their relationships with others are treated as if their guarded, defensive communication style is inappropriate and irrational. Consultants and other "caregivers," driven by a value of openness and candor, often make our cautious executive feel guilty. I am not suggesting that all consultants operating from a value system based on openness and authenticity counsel managers to be totally open all of the time. To do so would be to construct a straw man argument. What I am saying is that most consultants explicitly espouse authenticity in relationships and implicitly pass judgement when this authenticity is not enacted.

Most consultants will have an answer to our executive's penetrating "bottom line" question. Operating from a contingency perspective, most prudent consultants would probably suggest that candor should be tempered by tact and other factors in the situation. But what exactly are these other factors that mitigate against labeling defensiveness as dysfunctional and irrational?


Analysis of the contingency factors associated with determining when defensiveness is based on reason versus paranoia begins with Figure 1. As it indicates, candor and openness should be viewed as a continuum ranging from closed, guarded, and defensive to open, candid, and non-defensive. At the left side of the continuum we see communicative behavior in which every word and nonverbal cue emitted by self and other is weighed, analyzed, and scrutinized. Communication at the left side of the continuum occurs on the direct level (what is actually said) and on the meta-communication level. The latter refers to the assumptions, inferences, and interpretations interactants make about how they are saying what they are saying ("What I think you think about what I said"; "What I think you really mean"; "What I really mean but hope you don't realize that I mean"; "What you're saying but what I think you really mean"; "What I think you're trying to tell me but aren't telling me because . . . ," etc.).

Meta-communication is the covert monologue running in synch with the overt dialogue. Although meta-communication is a component of all interpersonal communication because it focuses on process rather than content, the left side of the continuum depicts hidden agendas that are consciously and purposely hidden. Communication at the left side of the continuum is, in the parlance of transactional analysis, "game playing" - it often conceals more than it reveals and is played on more than the overt, direct level.

At the right side of the continuum we have communication that is open, candid, and non-defensive. The words and nonverbal cues emitted by self and other may not be the "best" at conveying the intended message but they are chosen without ulterior motives.

When misunderstanding occurs at this end of the continuum, communicators are likely to attribute the breakdown to vagaries in the communication process itself. They are not likely to question motives or intent. Communication at this end of the continuum is consciously designed to reveal intent, non conceal intent. At the right side, participants say what they mean and mean what they say. Communication occurs primarily on the direct level and secondarily at the meta-level The term "authenticity" used earlier in this analysis has specific behavioral referents at the right side of our continuum.

Obviously, moving left to right on the continuum is movement from game playing and meta-communication to authenticity and direct communication. The rationale for positing openness as a construct of degree and gradation rather than dichotomous absolutes is based on the nature of language and linguistic encoding itself. Words and nonverbal cues are symbols capable of eliciting one or a multitude of meanings. These cues constitute a system that inherently allows participants to "shade," "color," "amplify," and "deflect" their messages. Unlike computers, which use a denotative dictionary exclusively, humans use both a denotative and connotative dictionary. The ability (intended or otherwise) to use language for both direct and meta-communication purposes and to construct subtlety and nuance in our messages is what allows us to speak of openness as a continuum.

Any compassionate manager confronting a performance appraisal of a hard-working but less than stellar performer immediately becomes a student of the subtlety, nuance, and gradation of meaning. Examine any corporate report containing potentially negative financial data and you will find text in which euphemisms, subtlety, and implication have been carefully selected. In short, human communication is not digital - it is analog.

Figure 1 also indicates that movement from left to right entails risk. Proponents of the human relations school have told us that to be open and honest with another requires that we trust the other, and when we invest trust in another we assume risk. We risk jeopardizing both tangible gains and intangibles such as self-esteem if the trust is violated or not reciprocated.

Figure 1 provides a theoretical basis for explaining the conditions under which defensiveness is rational versus irrational. In essence, whenever the risk for engaging in openness is justified, and our manager fails to assume the risk, then reverting to defensive communication can be seen as irrational and paranoid. Conversely, whenever the risk is not justified and our manager does engage in candid, open discourse, such activity could be seen as potentially destructive. The next section discusses the factors that managers and consultants should consider when judging the "quality of risk" along the openness continuum.


The analysis of the risk factors associated with candor versus defensiveness is presented in Figure 2. As indicated, six factors should be considered when judging the risk of candor.


Perhaps the most significant factor affecting trust and risk-taking in interpersonal communication is history. Has the other party violated your trust in the past? Has the party violated others' trust in the past? Has the other party provided cues (verbal or nonverbal) soliciting or reinforcing your attempts to be open and candid? Or has the other party provided cues to the contrary? Has history created a comfort level such that both parties can focus on direct communication rather than meta-communication?

Figure 2 indicates that history can be categorized as positive, negative, or neutral. When you communicate with someone who has violated your trust in the past, being closed, guarded, and defensive is rational. This is true especially if the cost of the violated trust is significant. To reveal an important trade secret to an associate who previously used similar secrets to his advantage and your disadvantage may be noble on your part, demonstrating utmost integrity and confidentiality, but it is definitely foolhardy. Conversely, when communicating with someone who has established a positive history, defensive communication is irrational.

Relationships void of a history should be approached by examining the next five factors. In other words, being open or guarded with someone who has yet to prove himself or herself is dependent upon the conciliatory versus adversarial nature of the encounter, the degree of power and status differential in the relationship, the projected commitment to the relationship, the corporate culture, and the importance of the topic.

Conciliatory vs. Adversarial Nature

of the Encounter

Certain encounters by nature set the stage for defensive, guarded communication, whereas other encounters foster openness and candor. Consider being cross-examined as a defendant on a witness stand versus being interviewed by a representative of your trade association for a "Person of the Year Award." The former is adversarial, the latter conciliatory. The former is a situation in which the challenge to self-esteem is not fabricated or a figment of overactive paranoia; it is a real and imminent threat.

The cross-examination and person-of-the-year examples are obviously loaded toward the extremes. But using them as bipolar examples, any encounter with a peer, a subordinate, a boss, a vendor, or a customer could be seen as falling somewhere between these extremes. If, as the research suggests, the typical manager spends the majority of the day in fragmentary, random communication, we can assume that these encounters vary along a variety of dimensions, one of which is a conciliatory/adversarial dimension.

If the encounter is objectively adversarial and the other party is committed to damaging or weakening your position or gaining at your expense, then engaging in guarded, defensive communication is rational. Conversely, if the encounter is conciliatory and the other party is trying to appease you, strengthen your position, or enhance your esteem, then defensiveness can be seen as irrational.

Power and Status Differential

One dominant fact characterizing communication in and around organizational hierarchies is that messages are sent and received from bases of power and status. Moreover, the empirical literature demonstrates that upward communication imposes pressures and constraints not found in downward or horizontal communication.

When we communicate with someone of higher status and power, we communicate with someone who has control over our fate - someone who appraises our performance, judges our promotability, and determines merit increase. The tendency to project the most favorable image possible, to encode negative messages in euphemisms and qualifiers, is understandable and rational, especially if past encounters reinforced the use of veiled euphemisms versus honest disclosures. Therefore, if the other party has higher power, defensiveness is rational. When communicating with someone of lower or equal power, however, being closed and guarded could be interpreted as irrational, suggesting lack of assertiveness or poor self-esteem.

Projected Commitment to the Relationship

Some relationships are purely transitory with no expectations from either party that a commitment exists or is even appropriate (making an appointment with a secretary to see his or her boss, for example). Other relationships, however, are predicated on the assumption that a future for the appropriately commit to it if the relationship is to succeed (for example, three people entering a business partnership).

Being candid in a relationship with no projected future presents little problem. After all, what are the consequences of being candid with someone we may never see again? A series of studies supports the conclusion that we may in fact be much more open and disclosing with a perfect stranger than we are with someone with whom we have established a relationship.

Gut-wrenching problems occur not when deciding on whether to be open with a perfect stranger, but when being open with a friend, a lover, a boss, or a subordinate. The encounters that create psychosomatic symptoms are precisely those that test our value system - our reliance on universal versus situational ethics, our acceptance of means versus ends strategy or vice versa, our belief that humanistic growth through disclosure is worth the cost of hurt feelings among corporate colleagues.

To the executive experiencing the conflicts of these potentially clashing values and wondering if being guarded and strategic in communication is rational, our response should be clear: Being guarded, careful, and strategic with trusted colleagues is not irrational or paranoid. Your concern and discomfort are signs that you want to do what is right but don't want to jeopardize the relationship. Valued relationships deserve communication in which words are weighed carefully, qualifiers are chosen strategically, and the consequences of full disclosure are compared to the cost of the relationship. In short, relationships based on mutual commitment must be strategically approached and constantly monitored for verbal and nonverbal messages. "Beating around the bush" may be anathema for the hard-driving, task-oriented executive, but it is necessary if the bush contains psychological "land mines."

Corporate Culture

Perhaps no single explanatory framework has achieved as much popularity and power in the past decade as the concept of "corporate culture." Subsuming the beliefs, values, customs, and artifacts of an organization, organizational culture helps us understand what organizational members do and why they do it.

Just as organizational researchers and consultants operate from a value system incorporating normative beliefs about candor, so too does a typical organization. Moreover, even the most cursory scanning of instruments used to measure organizational culture suggests that normative beliefs concerning candor play a central role in any organizational culture. Some organizations support a belief system that fosters candor among all organizational members, eschewing the organizational hierarchy for informal networking and face-to-face communication. Other organizations, however, implicitly and explicitly foster communication that is secretive, defensive, and risk aversive, and that perpetuates formal, hierarchical communication. As Figure 2 suggests, communicating in a defensive, guarded fashion is rational if that communication occurs in a culture that reinforces such behavior and punishes candor. [Tabular Data Omitted]

Importance of the Issue

Although every manager is in a sense a "gatekeeper" of information, not every message monitored by our gatekeeper is as important as every other message. Some issues have significant consequences for the individuals involved (our focus group data indicate that our new product is doomed); others are insignificant (the purchasing department just informed us that soap for the rest rooms will be purchased from a new vendor).

Case studies of group and individual decision making suggest that the salience of or ego involvement with an issue is significantly related to biased and problematic decision processes. Similarly, studies of distortion in upward communication conclude that subordinates are more likely to distort information to superiors if they believe the information puts them in a negative light - consequential versus inconsequential information.

Thus, we may conclude that it is rational to engage in defensive communication when sharing information that is both important and self-incriminating. Conversely, to engage in defensiveness when the information is inconsequential and not self-incriminating is irrational.

Contingency theory operates on a single, intuitively logical premise: All prescriptions of effectiveness and efficiency must account for specific factors in a specific situation. This same approach applies to prescriptions concerning communication. Unfortunately, a value espousing candor and openness may be so dominant in our society that consultants may explicitly argue for contingency but implicitly impose guilt on managers who apply candor contingent on the situation. This article has explored this argument and explicated the conditions under which guardedness is appropriate.

Six conditions were hypothesized as justification for engaging in guarded communication. Defensive, strategic communication is rational if:

* one party has been distrustful in the past;

* the encounter is adversarial in nature;

* the encounter is with someone of higher power;

* both parties are committed to the relationship;

* the organizational culture punishes candor and risk-taking; and

* the issue under discussion is consequential and potentially self-incriminating.

In coining Theory X and Theory Y, Douglas McGregor gave management theorists and practicing managers a taxonomy for describing two dominant approaches toward managing others. Unfortunately, a cultural norm espousing Theory Y generally and openness specifically has often failed to recognize that "the key to the art of managing under Theory Y is the ability to trust appropriately. Chronic under-trusting leads to apathy or resentment and the conditions that generally prevail under Theory X. Over-trusting can be equally destructive" (Haney 1979).


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PHOTO : Figure 1 The Communication Openness Continuum

Lyle Sussman is a professor of management in the School of Business, University of Louisville.
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Title Annotation:when guarded communication is appropriate
Author:Sussman, Lyle
Publication:Business Horizons
Date:Jan 1, 1991
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