Posts Tagged ‘human error’

Externalization and Avoidance – How we ignore and avoid facing our own faults

September 22, 2010

Externalization and avoidance are key manifestations of how we ignore and avoid facing our own faults and project them onto others, and has ramifications in how organizational learning does (or doesn’t) take place.

The Problem

In a journal article about experiences with professional business-consultants, Chris Argyris describes a senior manager asking a group of business consultants what problems they encountered and what changes they could make to their practices to improve service. In response, several of the consultants explained what the customers could do to improve consultant’s access to information or client acceptance of advice. The manager tried several more times to solicit ideas on changes the individuals could make to their consulting practices, but was again given details on things customers and others could do.
The consultants seemed oblivious to how painstakingly they avoided discussing their own practices.

“As long as efforts at learning and change focused on external organizational factors—job redesign, compensation programs, performance review, and leadership training—the professionals were enthusiastic participants. Indeed, creating new systems and structures was precisely the kind of challenge that well-educated, highly motivated professionals thrived on.
And yet the moment the quest for continuous improvement turned to the professionals’ own performance, something went wrong.”
(Argyris 1991)

This externalization behavior is explained by the concept of “Single-Loop Learning” or “Model-1” behavior and defenses people employ to objections or errors in Model-I actions operating under single-loop learning processes, in which they “create defensiveness, self-fulfilling prophecies, self-sealing processes, and escalating error” (Argyris

Not only are the errors unmentionable, but the very unmentionability is unmentionable also, hence “self-sealing”. (Argyris 1999)

Argyris poses this as a defense mechanism against embarrassment and feelings of threat which is deeply entrenched, finely practiced, and in which the individual is highly skilled to the degree that the mechanisms are automatic, instantaneous, and spontaneous. (Argyris

When people are challenged about these self-sealing actions or an unmentionable is mentioned, they “become defensive , screen out criticism, and put the ‘blame’ on anyone and everyone but themselves” (Argyris 1999), and thus inclined to scapegoat rather than engage in either self-reflection or analysis of the “tried and true” methods of received wisdom.

An example of this in practice is a discussion on LinkedIn by self-declared HR professionals debating what they “really hate in a CV“.

Rather than the more pertinent question of how they should go about identifying and acquiring better human assets than their competition, they found fault with external actors and produced a long shopping-list of what applicants should be doing differently rather than what they should be doing to address the core challenge of obtaining better assets. Many framed the issue in terms of how the applicants should “sell” themselves, or in what self-promotion the applicants should engage – and thereby ignore the obvious question of what recruiters should do to ensure that they procure the best candidates in spite of obstacles.

If asked why they are critiquing the resume-writing skills of applicants rather than trying to change their own practices to increase hiring quality, they again turn the discussion to failings of the applicants and frame the discussion in terms of the shortcomings of applicant’s self-promotional techniques.

Further probing or argument about why they choose to focus on resume-writing errors rather than acquisition problems, leads predictably to complaints of rudeness, general defensiveness, and further explication of what applicants should do to be more acceptable to recruiters.

In short, ego-defenses.

What to do?

Argyris argues in his early works in much the same vein as Freud – that making people aware of their defensive mechanisms will lead to mastery over them and resolution – self-revelation as a therapeutic bulwark against systematic Model-1 behavior.

Unfortunately this has not proven to be a very successful approach, and as I discuss in an earlier blog entitled “Dealing With Failure”, escape is not at all easy since these are both deeply ingrained and perhaps inborn defensive mechanisms.

I propose three main approaches for mitigation

  1. Engineer the human out wherever possible
  2. Place procedural traps to trigger corrective actions
  3. Copy aspects of the scientific method of critical tests


This is an old trick that comes from safety & quality practices, and involves building processes and procedures that simply eliminate the human in situations where they are prone to error, or engineering the risk downwards by providing guards, interlocks, and other devices for keeping fingers away from blades, and eyes away from flying debris. Build processes that reduce the opportunity for human error.

Traps & Triggers

Stuff happens, and despite all your engineering, people will still have cognitive biases and be prone to avoid noticing them – so build traps in the procedures that will catch them in the act and trigger self-correcting processes. With all the will in the world, you cannot wish away your biases, but you can plan ahead by setting traps for yourself.

Critical Tests

Science has had the principle of critical tests for some 400 years now, perhaps the concept should be adopted in more areas of human activity. If you believe that your skills at sizing up character traits in job interviews gets you good employees, then you must record what you thought at the time and test against actual outcomes. It simply isn’t enough to believe it to be true – you must follow up with measurements that could theoretically prove you wrong. You must also test the converse; you must sample some of those candidates whom you rejected to see what became of them. If you don’t, you could well be systematically excluding the best candidates and would never know. If the people you rejected went on to become Nobel Laureates, CEOs, and celebrated practitioners of their craft, then perhaps you are biased in how you reject candidates – but if you don’t sample your rejects you would never know.


Simple discussion is incapable of penetrating the protective layers and well-rehearsed defenses of Model-1 behaviors, and to avoid embarrassment people will defend positions by use of well-oiled and very subtle mechanisms such as reframing the issue to externalize its causes. However, protecting processes by engineering out human biases, and exposing behavior to traps and triggers and subjecting it to critical tests, can significantly lower the risk of falling prey to the many cognitive and behavioral biases to which humans are prone.

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Argyris, C. (1990). Overcoming Organizational Defenses, Prentice Hall.

Argyris, C. (1991). “Teaching Smart People How to Learn.” Harvard Business Review
69(3): 99-109.

Argyris, C. (1999). On Organizational Learning, Blackwell.

Argyris, C. (2000). Flawed Advice and the Management Trap, Oxford Press.


Matthew Loxton is a Knowledge Management professional and holds a Master’s degree in Knowledge Management from the University of Canberra. Mr. Loxton has extensive international experience and is currently available as a Knowledge Management consultant or as a permanent employee at an organization that wishes to put knowledge to work.

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