Not long ago I was regaling a friend with my strong views on systems change. “There is no such thing as sustainable change!” I said, “People have to keep discovering for themselves how they can best respond to the changing world.” When I got no answer, I repeated what I had just said. Without waiting for a response, I reworded my assertion and said it again. At last I paused for breath.

“I don’t agree,” my friend said mildly. “We have to keep looking for ways to insure sustainability. The most important thing in any change process is making sure that it lasts.”

“Lasting is not the issue,” I shot back, with some vehemence. “What we do each step of the way is the issue.” I was determined to win what had now become an argument. I felt we were on different wavelengths. How would I defend myself and the rightness of my point in what had become a very unpleasant situation? I secretly deployed my ultimate weapon. I simply wrote him off. Once discounted, this person became unimportant to me, not worthy of my time. In full self-righteous bloom, I now felt superior. I put myself on automatic pilot, driven entirely by an unconscious impulse. I could neither see nor hear anything outside of my construct of the interaction. More, I had shut down parts of myself—my curiosity, my openness, and my capacity to appreciate the complexity of the situation. I had originally wanted my point heard. Now I was stuck with the busywork of looking for rationales to protect my ego. It was some hours later, reflecting on this difference of opinion that had turned into an unpleasant exchange, that I remembered that this was not the first time a conversation had gone off-track due to my insistence on “being heard” (read: being right).

Now I have known this weakness in myself for some time. I am after all, a grown-up psychologist, not a little kid. But that is exactly the point. I consider myself an expert adult and still couldn’t get myself heard! In an eye blink I had reverted to a childhood strategy for protecting myself. I had become defensive—in a good cause, I thought—but not to good effect. The worst part is the fact that my expertise lies in facilitating difficult conversations among contentious players in large diverse groups. But human dynamics are filled with contradictions that we hear about regularly, for example, organizations that offer conflict resolution but can’t stop their own internal fighting, or anti-poverty agencies that pay staff less than a living wage. We all have so much growing up to do. In this article I want to outline some thoughts on personal and organizational defensiveness.

Taking things personally and needing to be “right” (feel superior) can adversely affect the health of our organizations. Granted, we all live at the center of our own universes, but working with others in systems requires a mental shift— from seeing yourself as the central character with “the right” view to experiencing that you are one of many players who have a full spectrum of views. Shifting your world-view can mean rethinking your place in the larger picture. This frightens many people because it is destabilizing. Here is an extreme example. When Copernicus discovered that the earth was not at the center of the universe in the early 1600s, he held back from making it public and died not knowing the impact of his work. When Galileo announced it 50 years later, he was imprisoned and forced to renounce his belief—and he spent the rest of his life in jail. It was such a hard pill to swallow for the religious and politically powerful people in the seventeenth century because it implied that “man” was simply a part of nature and not superior to it, which ran counter to the theories of the day. How does this translate to everyday life with work systems? If we believe that every nonprofit organization—along with the communities we work in and our field of endeavor—really are systems, then we have to act on its most important precept: no one part is superior or inferior to any other part. That doesn’t mean losing our credibility or sense of self, but developing the ability to see the connections we have to everything else, the dependence we have on each other and the “both/and” nature of things. That means not taking things personally—not being wedded to seeing things one way (my way).

We use defensiveness as a protective armor to help us maximize our pleasure and security, and minimize our internal conflict and anxiety. Unfortunately, and perversely, it often has the reverse effect.

We all learn defensive mechanisms as small children, developing strategies when we have few choices, little consciousness, and few ways to protect against thoughtless adults or hurtful peers. In those early years when we learn how to defend ourselves, the process is as inevitable as it is benign. We keep anxiety at bay by turning down the volume of adult demands, retreating into ourselves, throwing temper tantrums, drawing pictures, or going outside to play. Indeed all these ploys work pretty well. As we grow up we adopt adult versions of our defenses. We can also add a layer by developing defenses for our defensiveness. For instance, we may feel so aggressive about an opposing point of view that we look for others who share our view, have outraged conversations with them, and create alliances to feel supported in our “rightness.” Additionally some of us go to work in organizations, usually hierarchical, with all sorts of triggers to childish feelings and behavior. Unfortunately, complex systems very often reproduce problems at many different levels. How we act individually will often be reproduced organizationally, even throughout an entire field. In my opening story, I personally retreated from continued conversation with my colleague. When leaders act that way, it should come as no surprise when their organization similarly retreats from difficult interactions or disagreements. In fact it might do so to save its leader from losing face, status, or positioning. This can have some disastrous results—blockading the progress of collective learning and preventing the development of optimal strategies and collective clout. In fact, a major reason for organizational limitations can be leaders’ personal “issues.” Let’s try to get a grip on this!

Many of us look to leaders of organizations to be confident and unflappable; so it can be especially difficult to appear unsure of how to proceed in a particular situation. It’s also true that we don’t like to lose face. In fact, if we are in an organization that has traditionally functioned in a parent/child hierarchical mode, all may collude in the fantasy that leaders have or should have within themselves all that it takes to set organizational direction. This is just plain silly, especially in the world we are living in.

Today’s rate of change is explosive and has gone beyond what our individual psyches and intellects can tolerate. Thinking skillfully about how to direct an organization takes multiple skills, ongoing dialogue and a variety of perspectives. To make it work, all must feel able to discuss their own points of view and all must feel commitment to the whole of the organization and its constituents. The role of the leader, therefore, is to create the conditions for all to understand the whole and contribute to constructive next steps.

Maybe this role is less alluring than one that pretends to have all the answers, but in the end it will work better. The trick to being this kind of leader is in learning to contain your own anxiety while acknowledging, mobilizing, and transforming your organization’s capability for constructive action. Here are some simple insights that might help: Acknowledge and Contain Your Own Anxiety My first suggestion may seem so simplistic, it could be easily dismissed, but it’s the essence of good leadership. When you feel that you are losing control because the group you are working with is acting out of control, become aware of your rising anxiety and don’t act impulsively. Contain your anxiety! Then try a path different from the one you would normally take. If your tendency is to flood the air with words to quiet the din around you, force yourself to keep quiet. On the other hand, if your tendency is to withdraw, then force yourself to stay in the conversation. In either case, be aware of how your behavior, under the stress of tense and sometimes virulent disagreements, acts as a model to others in the room. Once you abandon your habitual response, you may wish to check and acknowledge anxiety elsewhere in the room. Ask people to say where they are on the issue. You’ll get a more differentiated, realistic picture of where the group is. Keep the purpose front and center. Your group members’ job is to do the best they can in the time they have—and that’s your job too.

No matter what the circumstance is, internal or external, you don’t have to solve every last problem on the table to be successful. Do you know the 80/20 rule? We spend 80 percent of our time struggling over the 20 percent of things we don’t agree on. Change the focus. Instead of looking at where you’re apart, focus on where you’re together. What’s the common ground? Help group members determine where they’re in agreement. If there is shared energy on some issues, start working immediately on those. What about the issues people don’t agree on? Make a “not agreed” list. Acknowledge the divisive issues. Take that information into account as you move forward, and help the group figure out how to attend to them later. You will be surprised at how much energy there is when you don’t have to negotiate every conflict immediately. The “not agreed” issues won’t disappear; you can handle them at another time with more information. They just don’t have to be turned into action items at that moment. Agreeing to work on common ground despite unresolved differences is a transforming step. You will also limit people’s need to be right by not giving in to a “win/lose” mentality in the group. You will eventually create a community that has bonded in active service to what it can do together.

Finally don’t ignore the fact that anxiety is energy, sometimes called “blocked excitement,” and it can fuel progress if you work with it in the group. Remind others in the group about this and about the fact that change always elicits some discomfort. We don’t fully know what is facing us. Try to get to the point where most of your discomfort is simply curiosity about what will happen next. Check the group and find out who else is curious. It may sound corny, but you can mobilize the group’s energy when you have common ground on which to act and curiosity as a framework for taking a next step. I promise you something different will happen.

If it wants to be effective, your nonprofit doesn’t have a choice but to evolve. What is an evolved, mature organization? It is one where members have developed the ability to solve increasingly complex problems with external as well as internal partners. A mature organization is one that can manage and resolve its task and process problems as they arise and move forward consciously, reflecting on how they are doing. The process of going from an immature group to an evolved group involves discovering new skills, insights, creative ideas, and points of view. When the group gets stuck, the leader champions the will to stay engaged, researching the issues, working through differences and finding common ground for action that deploys the energy of all those in and around the organization. In this way the smallest group can act powerfully as part of a larger system. It is the soul of an adaptive organization, as described by Carl Sussman in the Winter 2003 issue of the Nonprofit Quarterly. Most of us aspire re to work with others in n a collegial, collaborative way, but when we let defensive behavior into the mix, things can go offtrack. Your job as leader is to help groups find a way forward, even when differences seem acute, directing the energy to areas of agreement. Your job is also to be mindful of what you can control and what you can’t control. You can control who’s involved in planning decisions. You can control who has access to what information. You can control the conditions under which people work together. You can’t control people’s behavior but you can, by your own behavior, set standards for inclusion and continuous, courageous learning.

Sidebar: One of the most powerful things you can do when your group is dealing with its differences is make sure that no one ever hangs out on a limb alone and becomes a scapegoat. The way to interrupt scapegoating is counterintuitive. Instead of ignoring the person or convincing them that they are wrong, get them an ally. Ask “who else feels that way?” When the person is validated, the group stays whole and can move on.

Agazarian, Yvonne M. Systems-Centered Therapy for Groups. New York: Guilford Press, 1997.

Agazarian, Yvonne M. and Sandra Janoff. “Systems Theory in Small Groups” in H. Kaplan and B. Sadock (eds.), Comprehensive Textbook of Group Psychotherapy. Williams and Wilkins, 1993.

Weisbord, Marvin and Sandra a Janoff . Future Search: An Action Guide for Finding Common Ground in Organizations and Communities. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2nd edition, 2000.

Sandra Janoff, Ph.D. is co-director of Future Search Network, a worldwide, voluntary, service network that offers future search processes and facilitation training to communities and nonprofits at whatever price people can afford. She’s run future searches around the world on issues such as creating the future for children in war-torn Southern Sudan; building an inclusive, world-class community in racially and economically polarized Berrien County, MI; and building a healthy community on traditional values of mind, body and spirit in Ko’olau Loa, Oahu , Hawaii.