Several years ago I was introduced to a seemingly simple concept; it has since proven to be an extremely powerful idea that resonates strongly with many people introduced to it. At the time of this discovery I was struggling with some aspects of leadership. I was running into barriers that I couldn’t see or understand, and at times I found it very disheartening. One of my mentors introduced me to the idea of defensive scripts, and although at the time I didn’t fully understand its importance, it has become a very influential concept for me.
A defensive script is, at its core, a very simple notion. The scripts are reasons or explanations that we use to justify our current behaviour or practice, and often they can seem completely reasonable or appropriate. These scripts are something that people all seem to have in abundance; I have had to buy extra luggage to carry all of mine. Defensive scripts are studied in behaviour therapy work around shame. In his book about shame, Pattinson (2000) references Gershen Kaufman who states that defensive scripts are ways in which people develop habitual ways of behaving or acting in order to avoid shame. If it looks as though shame may appear, people follow their ‘scripts’ in order to avoid it. This same process is used by people both in their professional practice and their personal lives. We all have particular ways of behaving, reacting and working. When something arises that looks as though it could question or ‘threaten’ us, we resort to ‘scripts’ to justify our actions to ourselves and to others.
These justifications or scripts may appear perfectly reasonable; in fact that is what can make them so powerful and so difficult to get past - they are often rooted in truth or logical behaviour. However, they can become problematic when this behaviour is ingrained, as it stops us from being more open and from considering other ways of being. If I can justify to myself why I keep doing something, I don’t need to question why I am doing it in the first place, nor consider what sits underneath my behaviours.
I have many defensive scripts I return to again and again. One of my classics is that I am too busy to get particular things done. Yes, I am busy; isn’t everyone? Interestingly, I am rarely too busy to talk with a crying student who has had an argument with their friend, or to discuss the inadequacies of the latest teacher contract offer from the Ministry of Education. I may, though, be far too busy to have that crucial conversation with my colleague where I need to hold them to account over a particular issue. This comes down to what sits underneath my justifications, what really drives my decision making. Holding our colleagues to account, no matter how important and crucial it may be, makes us uncomfortable and is often difficult. Therefore I will search for reasons not to do it. Being busy is an easy one, because, as a teacher, it is rooted in truth - we are always busy. I also often use the script around ‘not being in the teacher’s best interests right now’ to defer a tricky talk. I can easily convince myself that the colleague in question has so much going on for them right now (student conferences / writing reports / assessments / personal issues) that it is simply not the right time to do this. Again, this may well be true, but if this script frequently pops up, should it be what drives my decision making? Will there ever really be a right time to have a tricky conversation?
Conceptually, the idea of defensive scripts is both simple and powerful: we frequently justify our behaviours with particular explanations. As practitioners we will grow and develop enormously if we learn to recognise our own regularly-used scripts and call ourselves out on them. Once I know underneath that I’m really not too busy to talk with my colleague about their practice, it’s just that I will find that conversation a bit uncomfortable so I am putting it off, then I am driven to take the bull by the horns and have the talk. The more we understand what really drives our actions, the more informed and honest our behaviours can become. Understanding our defensive scripts makes us more honest to ourselves which, whilst uncomfortable at times, is also very empowering.
The interesting (and occasionally amusing) thing is, that we are not just practitioners; we are, first and foremost, human beings, whose lives outside of work are often changed by growth and development within our professional roles. When I develop my way of being as a practitioner, I also grow and develop as a whole person. I was recently accosted by a colleague who stated with a grin that their partner would maybe like to chat with me when we next have a social gathering. The colleague then went on to explain that, having talked with me at work about the concept of defensive scripts, they went home and had a conversation with their partner that became a little heated. At one point the teacher confronted their partner about resorting to a defensive script, which they stated was simply not acceptable and needed to be addressed. I can sense yet another difficult conversation in my future!
For a more specific discussion around use of defensive scripts in leadership development, follow this link.
Pattinson, S. (2000). Shame. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.