Learning How to Learn: Professionals Confront Their Own Obstacles

April 5th, 2009   •   no comments   
Helping Successful People Avoid the “Doom Loop”

“Despite the strength of defensive reasoning, people genuinely strive to produce what they intend. They value acting competently. Their self-esteem is intimately tied up with behaving consistently and performing effectively. Companies can use these universal human tendencies to teach people how to reason in a new way – in effect, to change the master programs in their heads and thus reshape their behavior.”
Chris Argyris, HBR, 1991


Successful people have an inherent disadvantage to learning: their achievements tell them, directly or indirectly, that their knowledge is valid, solid. That entrenched, firm position of “I know” prevents them from seeking alternate views, realities: short-circuits learning. When confronted with other views, perspectives that may be uncomfortable, it makes complete sense that they would engage in “defensive reasoning;” it’s a normal human response to a situation in which the
re is some element of threat.

What’s the cure? Argyris, the author of the piece I’ve been reading, offers a simple solution: perform a “Case Study” on the problem, alone. Then, invite your reports — in an open and candid setting — to help you review your projections of how a meeting with them to resolve the problem would have gone.

The discussion will help you, the boss, better understand what subjects they don’t confront for fear of “rocking the boat” or offending someone. With these new insights, a different environment can be created where a range of off-agenda subjects can be brought into the meetings.

I’ve been reviewing these ideas lately even though they’re a bit old. They’re, certainly, not stale. They originate from one of the more original thinkers in the managemenet science area. This one comes from a May 1991 piece in Harvard Business Review by Chris Argyris titled “Teaching Smart People How to Learn.” Argyris’ early research explored the impact of formal organizational structures, control systems and management on individuals and how they responded and adapted to them. (from Wikipedia)

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