Defensive Scripts in Leadership Development

As an emerging leader working with other teachers I kept coming up against walls. Big, blank walls that confused and frustrated me. Over and over again as I attempted to broach a difficult subject with a colleague, or tried to hold someone to account, I would be faced with an answer or reasoning that I could not seem to get past. How do you introduce new ideas or ways of working to a teacher who says ‘I know my students best, and I know what is needed to meet their needs’ without destroying either the teacher’s integrity or mine? I found these answers or reasons stopped me in my tracks. It has taken me a long time to understand what is happening when this occurs, and to find ways to move past the walls keeping everyone’s integrity intact.

Being introduced to the concept of defensive scripts was a huge breakthrough for me. These scripts are reasons or justifications that we use to explain our behaviours or practice. When we sense a ‘threat’ or challenge to our behaviours, we often resort to well honed defensive scripts that enable us to justify those behaviours. These scripts can become barriers to change because they stop us from examining our own behaviours and the beliefs or thinking that sit beneath them.

Defensive scripts are often logical or based in truth, which is precisely what can make them so hard to get past. When a colleague gives me a perfectly reasonable justification for an action, such as ‘I closed off the doors because my group was doing something quite different from the other groups and we were going to be very noisy”, then it is hard to refute that. However, when that colleague says the same thing week after week, in a learning environment that is supposed to be open and collaborative, then that becomes problematic and needs to be addressed.

Defensive scripts are not confined to verbal justifications They can be mechanisms or actions that are used to stave off a perceived challenge or threat, or to stop a conversation from going deeper. The person who always stays silent when you try to discuss difficult issues and does not tell you what they are actually thinking may be using a defensive mechanism. Their silence may be a way to stop the conversation from going further. If they talk and tell you what they are thinking, they run the risk of being challenged about their ideas, so they remain silent. It’s a powerful mechanism, because it can often stop the other person in their tracks. A similar mechanism can be to become very emotional - either by crying or becoming angry or confrontational. These actions are defensive because they are also likely to stop a conversation from going further. This is not to say that these are not genuine emotional reactions, but if these behaviours are continually used, then they do become a ‘script’ that can be used to bring discussions to a halt. Use of humour can also be used as an avoidance or defensive mechanism. People may use banter or joky behaviour to keep the conversation at a light, surface level and prevent deeper thinking or beliefs that lie beneath behaviours from being revealed.

As leaders we need to be on the lookout for these patterns of behaviours. Once repeated ‘scripts’ are identified, they need to be addressed so that you can both move past the patterned script and get to the issues underneath. Only then can real progress be made.

Without knowing about defensive scripts, these repeated behaviours can be very difficult to get past without damaging your relationship with the other person. However, with a shared understanding of what defensive scripts are, it becomes much easier. The conversations I have now with my team are so much more open and lacking in defensiveness because we have a shared knowledge around defensive scripts. I recently had a conversation with a teacher where I brought up a potentially tricky subject. It was initially a slightly ‘spiky’ conversation, with the teacher rushing in to brush off what I was saying and not seeming to want to discuss it further. I brought it up again with them a little later, and explained that I felt they had possibly used a defensive script to avoid talking about the situation in more depth. The atmosphere seemed to immediately relax, with the teacher agreeing that a defensive script had been used. We talked through the issue and I feel we both left with our dignity and integrity intact. It was also good to talk openly with them about a particular script they had a tendency to use, so that we could easily come back to the discussion if the script popped up again.

In order to create a team or school culture where issues can be discussed in an honest and robust way, shared knowledge around defensive scripts is very useful. In our school teacher development framework the concept of defensive scripts is included from the very start of a teacher’s career. In the framework, the concept is introduced and then developed over the following few years in relation to the teacher’s own practice. Indicators such as  ‘Understands what defensive scripts are, their impact and can identify at least one defensive script they use frequently to avoid change’ appear in each phase of the teacher development framework up until the teacher enters the emerging leadership phase. Once in the leadership phase, indicators around defensive scripts change to focus on both their own leadership practice - ‘Is aware of some “leadership” defensive scripts’ and on the practice of teachers they work with  - ‘Challenges teachers’ defensive scripts, limiting beliefs, negative mental models and defensiveness when appropriate.’ It is important that a leader can first identify and learn to manage their defensive scripts before they begin to work with and coach other teachers on their scripts.

Teachers seem to respond more openly to the idea of defensive scripts than to direct attempts to address a perceived the issue.  By addressing a defensive script, you are not addressing the issue in a judgemental way or attempting to put your own perspective or theory on to the issue, making it less confronting. What you are saying is that you think there may be other reasons or thinking causing the action, but you leave space for the other person to examine that for themselves.

This approach fits very well with the concept of the middle ground, which was developed by Gert Biesta.  In his book, ‘The Rediscovery of Teaching’(2017), Biesta proposed that ‘to exist in and with the world without making space for what exists there as well, is not really to exist at all’ (Chapter 1: What is the Educational Task?). He argued that we all need to exist in the world without considering ourselves the centre of it. He referred to this as ‘grown-up-ness’ (ibid). Within this idea, Biesta talked about the middle ground, where both self and ‘other’ can exist together in dialogue, not in contest. In the middle ground both parties can maintain their integrity, their subject-ness.

We all meet resistance on a daily basis, such as the colleague in a collaborative environment who wants to shut their classroom door and teach their own group of children in their own preferred way. There are three ways we can approach this resistance. Firstly, we can try to enforce our will onto the other person. This may be necessary to a degree, to get something started, but if done too much it can destroy the integrity of the other person in that moment. Secondly, we can choose to withdraw - simply let the other person continue. In doing so their integrity is intact, but yours is not, as you are not engaging and ‘existing’ in the world in your own right, at that moment. The third choice is to maintain the middle ground: find the space in between where both you and the other person can exist together with your integrity intact - you can both exist in and with the world.  

I came across the idea of the middle ground before discovering the concept of defensive scripts. My early attempts around maintaining middle ground were clumsy, and focused around maintaining the integrity of the other person. As a strong personality driven by clear, deeply felt moral purpose, I can jump into situations boots and all, often with the outcome of those boots kicking the other person right out of the middle ground. In trying to rectify this, I tended to make what I imagine is a common mistake, and I went too far the other way. By trying to maintain the integrity of the other person, I often destroyed my own in the process. I can recall situations where I sat and let the other person unload on me because I was trying not to be too argumentative; I destroyed my own integrity and offered no other perspective nor asked any thoughtful questions in order to help the other person view the situation in a wider way.  Such situations were tough experiences for me, and were a catalyst for further exploration of what was causing such discomfort and pain. As I was working on staying in the middle ground whilst making sure that the other person was also there, I was introduced to the idea of defensive scripts. Although I did not realise it to begin with, this would become the missing piece of the puzzle of practice I was wrestling with.

I recently had an amazing meeting with a small group of engaged, highly motivated teacher-leaders I work with. We were exploring a number of leadership skills or concepts, with defensive scripts being one of them. The workshop certainly did not go in the neat, orderly fashion I had intended it to! Instead of coaching pairs quietly discussing the concept and thinking through the impact on their own practice, it ended up as a loud, intense group discussion around their own defensive scripts and the beliefs they felt lay underneath them. Teachers talked about scripts such as avoiding or passing on potentially tricky situations by telling themselves they have not been teaching long enough to deal with it, or being able to convince themselves that issues were only small and therefore did not need face-to-face action with another colleague. It was such an amazing open discussion, with people challenging and questioning each other without any rancour or defensiveness. I came out of the meeting with such a sense of wonder - how did these young teachers develop such wisdom and clarity of thought? What was possible for the future of education if people like this kept on in this vein, both with their own practice and with other teachers they work with?

On reflection, those teachers are indeed amazing people, and they have so much to offer the future of education and the future of our young people. However, there is also something to be said for the concepts they have been taught to think about and explore. There are some key ideas and concepts within teaching and leadership that I think are boundary breaking, and I am coming to the conclusion that defensive scripts, especially when coupled with the idea of maintaining the middle ground, could well be one of them. Introducing teachers to these potentially transformative concepts can change the professional conversations within schools, and will hopefully begin to tear down those invisible walls we find ourselves banging into as leaders.

Actions you can take to help get past defensive scripts

  • Be on the lookout for your own defensive scripts. Once you note justifications you regularly use, delve a bit deeper and consider the thinking that may underlie this reasoning. Talking this over with a trusted coach, mentor or colleague can help. Once you become aware of some of your regularly used defensive scripts or mechanisms, you can begin to do something about them.

  • Explore the concept of defensive scripts with your team or colleagues you work closely with / lead. Do this before needing to have a conversation about a specific issue - explain the concept of the scripts, and then have a conversation about what people think about the concept and what it’s making them consider. Can people identify any of their own scripts or mechanisms? What are the potential impacts of these scripts? How might this knowledge and understanding help them in their own growth and development? It can be good to have this initial conversation as part of a group - just exploring the concept. Then you can explore it in more depth in private meetings with people you work with, as they begin to think about their own scripts and the underlying reasons for them.

  • Be aware of defensive scripts being used by colleagues.  Make a note of reasons or justifications that appear quite regularly from people.

  • Be prepared to discuss potential defensive scripts - always privately and in a tentative, curious way: ‘Do you think ... (whatever action or particular script is being used) could be a defensive script?’ ‘What do you think that might be about?’


    Biesta, G. (2017). The Rediscovery of Teaching. [Kindle version]. Retrieved from