Leadership Coaching Tip: Organizational Challenges in Leadership –Defensive Routines

Micki McMillan

“When you stand up for what you believe is right, you must have the courage to acknowledge your actions and face the consequences.”~ Mahatma K. Gandhi

Micki McMillanAs a 21st Century Leader, you encounter defensive routines in organizational settings every minute of every day. The trick is not to try to eliminate them, rather to discover how you skillfully work with them. Defensive routines can defeat even the best leadership practices unless they are named and directly addressed. But when faced directly, defensive routines can inform, bring forth deeper wisdom, and transform individuals and organizations.

Defining Defensive Routines

Defensive routines in an organization are unwritten, contradictory codes of behavior, hidden obstacles within the culture that undermine success. Some examples include making your boss think you are doing a good job even if you’re in trouble, telling people in the organization to take risks but not to fail, and asking them to tell the truth but not to deliver bad news.

Defensive routines are often difficult to detect because of their insidious nature. As a leader, how do you first, identify your own defensive routines before helping others in the organization identify theirs? Keen self-observation will help you be acquainted with your own faulty habits. After that, taking courageous action to transform your own behaviors will invite others to do the same.

It is human nature to want to look good and yearn to be accepted in the organization. In organizations that allow unproductive behaviors to occur, it is likely that individuals will employ any and all tactics to fit in. As a leader, you must look not only at the individual, but also at the whole system in which she resides. By viewing the behavior from an integral perspective, you can identify ways to address the problem from a healthy and holistic perspective.

Defensive routines happen in any human system, including family systems. They often fade into the background and are generally invisible. Through effective and courageous inquiry defensive routines can be surfaced and more effectively dealt with. For example:

  • When you give your boss bad news, what is her reaction?
  • What are your personal beliefs about giving bad news?
  • What systems exist that both encourage and discourage communicating bad news?
  • How does the culture encourage and discourage communicating bad news?

Effective Leadership

Once you have surfaced one or more defensive routines, consider the opportunities to transcend the dysfunction into something productive. Here are some factors to consider:

Personal Responsibility
Who is this person in the face of the circumstances she faces, and what choices are available to her? Consider factors that are both within her control and outside of her control. Is there tension between maintaining integrity vs. achieving goals? Does she know she has choice?
Skillful Communication—
What “truths” need to be expressed and to whom? What conflicts need to be surfaced? What other skillful communication is asked for in this situation?
Managing Commitments
What requests, offers or commitments could be made? What apologies or complaints are necessary? What are the emotional obstacles that prevent such conversations?
Emotional Intelligence—
What painful emotions are evident? How can he use the pain of these emotions for valuable lessons for the future?

When you practice courageous leadership by challenging your own defensive routine behaviors, you are not only helping yourself, but you are shaping the organization into a place of great possibility. All organizations are merely a network of human beings. Once you remember that you are a mere mortal, rather than a saint in waiting, defensive routines becomes an insignificant behavior that over time, do not merit practice.

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Micki McMillan is Vice President of Wisdom Works, a firm which advances a clear mantra: Healthy Leader, Healthy Business, Healthy World. Through keynote speaking, leadership coaching and training, culture change consulting, action research and WisdomScape®, a world-class suite of leadership visioning and action design tools, Wisdom Works develops the skills of leaders to manage complexity, think holistically, gain competitiveness through collaboration, and produce inspired, sustainable results. Global companies among Wisdom Works’ clients are Booz Allen Hamilton, Merck & Company, Trinity Health, J. Sainsbury, Western Union and The Coca-Cola Company. Wisdom Works also develops leaders of the future through its ground-breaking programs, The Emerging21st Century Leaders’Internship and Wisdom Scholars Fund.

Micki can be reached at, or