Bain, Alastair, "Social Defenses Against Organizational Learning", Human Relations, Vol. 51, No. 3, 1998, pp 413-429.

(Note: some key terms are marked in bold or italics.)


It is argued that for organizational learning to occur maladaptive social defenses within the organization have to be altered. The origins of the concept of social defenses are traced through the work of Jaques and Menzies. A new concept of “system domain,” and related concepts of “system domain fabric,” and “system domain defenses,” are proposed in order to account for the difficulties in sustaining organizational change in organizations that share a similar primary task. “Organizational learning” is defined as occurring when there is co-evolution of “organizational container” and “contained.” The article distills variables from three successful consultancy/action research projects which are characteristic of organizations that are learning, and it is hypothesized that the creation of “organizational awareness” is necessary for organizational learning to occur.

One primary thesis: "All organizations have socially constructed defenses against the anxiety which is aroused through carrying out the primary task of the organization. These social defenses may be evident in the organizational structure, in its procedures, information systems, roles, in its culture, and in the gap bewteen what the organization says it is doing and what is is actually doing."

Q: What are these anxieties? And how to people manage them?

p. 414 Elliott Jaques introduced the concept of social defenses against anxiety in 1955. The “specific hypothesis” he explored was that “one of the primary cohesive elements binding individuals into institutionalized human association is that of defence against psychotic anxiety” (1955, p. 479). Jaques (1955) linked the concept of identification in group formation as derived by Freud (1921) with the processes of introjective and projective identification as elaborated by Melanie Klein (1932, 1948, 1952, p. 483). ... He concludes “the view has here been advanced that one of the primary dynamic forces pulling individuals into institutionalized human association is that of defence against paranoid and depressive anxiety; and, conversely, that all institutions are unconsciously used by their members as mechanisms of defence against these psychotic anxieties” (p. 496).

p. 415, Footnote3: This work is increasingly being referred to as “socio-analysis, ” i.e., the activity of exploration, consultancy, and action research that combines and synthesizes methodologies derived from psychoanalysis, group relations theory, social systems thinking, social dreaming, and organizational behavior.

(WLA: might the work of OGM also be a kind of sociotechnical-analysis? An activity of exploration, reflection, and action research that combines and synthesizes methods from general systems thinking, open technology systems and software development, information and knowledge curation and engineering, human and machine learning, music, art, and literature, ....)

p. 416 Menzies: "resistance to change: change, like decision making, arouses stress since it implies giving up a familiar present for a relatively unknown future."

To learn, whether as an individual, a group, or an organization requires giving up ignorance, or something that is thought to be known. If it is something the individual, group, or organization thinks it already knows, to learn, and thereby to change, is like a mini-death to a known way of being. Organizational learning, which is likely to change this known way of being (however maladaptive it may be) will be resisted.

A 'system domain fabric' includes a primary task shared across institutions and may include - roles, organizational structure, and authority systems - policies and procedures, information systems, and accountabilities - professional training - funding arrangements - technology and technical systems - representational systems, e.g., trade unions, professional associations - knowledge base - capacities and psychological characteristics of the people employed - environment -- political, social, economic, physical, etc.

pp. 419-420 Nature of organizational learning.

(This section of the paper is not clear except to claim that "organizational learning is to do with the phenomena that arise at the level of the organization." But how to notice and observe these phenomena is not made clear.)

p. 422 (In the studies mentioned in the paper 'all three organizations consciously constructed space for common reflection on activities, which allowed for developing awareness of the "whole", i.e., the organization and its interconnected parts.')

p. 423 .... certain essential features of these "learning spaces" that were the same in each project:

  1. the agenda for the work of the learning spaces largely derived from the members of the organization themselves working on the task of the program
  2. the learning space was not filled up with senior executives (not an OGM issue)
  3. the groups came to accept silence at appropriate times rather than filling in the silence with talk.

p. 425 Organizational awareness (the environment needed for organizational learning)

In all three organizations, Baric, the Day Nursery, and Pentridge, the maladaptive aspects of social defenses changed. In a sense, the change is from unconscious social defenses permeating the organization, and to a large extent determining behavior, to the organization or project team consciously constructing and using spaces for reflection on action, learning from this experience and planning. Another level has thereby been built into organizational consciousness, a level of organizational awareness, which was not present before.

Organizations that lack learning space, or reflective space which allows for organizational awareness, are “asleep” to their own behavior. The organization may appear to be awake and responsive, but in fact is acting in a repetitive way without thought or reflection. This “pre-learning” organization is characterized by mainly individualized nodes of organizational awareness, which are frequently highly differentiated from each other and to a large extent role dependent.

Changing the “container” for organizational experience and developing a container for organizational awareness, together with reflection on what is “contained,” brings these nodes of organizational awareness together with a potentiality for creating new thoughts and different actions.

Consultancy of the kind that is being alluded to, tends to wake the organization from its sleep, and part of the consultancy is to create space for developing organizational awareness. Without this created space for developing organizational awareness I would find it difficult to talk about organizational learning.

pp. 427-428 Conclusions

It has been hypothesized that during action research and consultancy projects that initiate organizational change there is a co-evolution of “organizational container” and “contained" ... that is related with the growth of capacity and may be used as a definition and as a measure of organizational learning.

It has also been hypothesized that all organizations have socially constructed defenses against the anxiety of carrying out the primary task of the organization and that these defenses prevent organizational learning. Social defenses permeate what is “contained” in the project, and they are also likely to influence the design of the “organizational container” for the project. Successful work on what is “contained” by consultants and members of the project team will modify these social defenses and provide opportunities for the growth of new understandings of organizational realities that can then be translated into different actions. This in turn is likely to provoke an evolution of the “organizational container” for the project.

What it’s possible to think, say, and do is now different from the start of the project, and this is likely to continue to evolve as the project progresses. While this may be occurring at the local organizational level it has been suggested that many, if not most, organizations are part of a systems domain—a systems domain comprises all organizations with a similar primary task—and that the social defenses within these organizations are actually an expression of system domain defenses. Unless the local system is extremely robust (or the system domain changes), it is likely that the organizational changes that have been initiated within the local system will be eroded over time due to the influence of the system domain fabric, and the system domain defenses.

A more general hypothesis was offered that the “power” of the system domain fabric, and the system domain defenses generated, to prevent localized change occurring and being sustained during an organizational change project is a function of the level of authority within the local system, and the extent to which system domain factors are within the authority system, or influence, of members of the organizational change project.

The concept of system domain defenses is located between the concept of social defenses at the level of the local institution, as evidenced by Menzies’ study of the nursing system of a hospital, and the concept of “domain defenses” identified by Gilmore and Krantz.

The article distills changes in five factors that the author considers were significant in three organizations in which organizational learning was taking place:

  • Primary task
  • Project ownership
  • Leadership, authority, and roles
  • Individual, group, and organizational interdependence
  • Reflection and learning spaces

All three organizations during the action research or consultancy projects developed a level of organizational awareness that was not present before. This level of organizational awareness was the result of the co-evolution of “organizational container” and “contained.”

James Krantz 2010 Social Defenses and 21st Century Organizations