Mantle flow involves large strains of polymineral aggregates. The strongly anisotropic plastic response of each individual grain in the aggregate results from the interactions between neighbouring grains and the continuity of material displacement across the grain boundaries. Orthorhombic olivine, which is the dominant mineral phase of the Earth’s upper mantle, does not exhibit enough slip systems to accommodate a general deformation state by intracrystalline slip without inducing damage. Here we show that a more general description of the deformation process that includes the motion of rotational defects referred to as disclinations can solve the olivine deformation paradox. We use high-resolution electron backscattering diffraction (EBSD) maps of deformed olivine aggregates to resolve the disclinations. The disclinations are found to decorate grain boundaries in olivine samples deformed experimentally and in nature. We present a disclination-based model of a high-angle tilt boundary in olivine, which demonstrates that an applied shear induces grain-boundary migration through disclination motion. This new approach clarifies grain-boundary-mediated plasticity in polycrystalline aggregates. By providing the missing mechanism for describing plastic flow in olivine, this work will permit multiscale modelling of the rheology of the upper mantle, from the atomic scale to the scale of the flow.