Getting real: how leaders can unlock their organization’s learning power

HiResBy Dino Signore

How often have you expressed a need for more leadership, team work and transparency from your employees, only to experience the opposite? How often have you had conversations with subordinates about performance and felt they were resisting, denying, blaming others — or avoiding taking responsibility for the situation?

Chalk it up to defensive behavior.

Granted, being defensive is human nature. No one wants to feel vulnerable or look foolish, and humans can become extremely competent at protecting themselves from perceived threats or embarrassment. When something falls through the cracks or a problem arises, our knee-jerk reaction is to save face. We want to maximize winning and minimize losing — and even if it’s unconscious, as we push our own agenda, the information shared with others becomes skewed in our favor.

In addition, employees often assume that by speaking truthfully they will be committing professional suicide — especially if the truth is contrary to their leaders’ position. Leaders also avoid being candid in many circumstances, such as when they think their team will not respond positively to what they’re actually thinking.

Such covert (and mostly unconscious) actions and reactions can become repeated like genetic encoding throughout the life of the organization. If not corrected, over time no one in the organization will discuss the real issues and, even worse, they will not even be able to talk about why something can’t be talked about!

The late business theorist Chris Argyris is known for his concept of single- and double-loop learning, which provides a great model for understanding organizational learning disabilities and how to avoid them. Single-loop learning is about merely tweaking a problem — addressing symptoms, but not really solving what’s wrong. In contrast, double-loop learning is about identifying and correcting the underlying processes, policies and infrastructure that cause a problem to exist in the first place — and achieving an effective, long-term solution.

Unfortunately, single-loop learning is the norm in most organizations because of inherent defensive behavior. According to Argyris, defensive reasoning manifests itself in three ways: Unilaterally advocating for your own position, making assumptions about other people’s thoughts and feelings and attributing cause or blame to others.

The latter is especially dangerous because when fingers start pointing, information stops flowing. There’s a great scene in Quentin Tarantino’s movie, “Reservoir Dogs,” where three characters are in a Mexican standoff, aiming guns at each other and trying to find out who snitched on their heist. Instead of answers, they end up killing each other simultaneously. Okay, maybe this is an extreme example, but the point is pretty clear: When people are in a defensive posture, not much learning happens.

To cultivate double-loop learning, Argyris advocates adding two simple variables that transform defensive reasoning into productive reasoning:

  1. Present evidence or specifics to support your point of view.
  2. Make it possible for others to question your point of view.

Evidence illustrates how you come to conclusions regarding your position, your evaluation of others’ emotions and your attribution of cause. Inquiry, the second variable, is even more important, because it enables you to be temporarily vulnerable. This is especially critical for leaders because it helps employees feel secure enough to share difficult news.

Admitting that you could be wrong is a pretty powerful admission for a leader — and it sets the tone for honest, open dialogue. Every employee feels vulnerable because they can be fired; it constantly plays into their subconscious. It is only when the boss perpetuates a culture of openness that you’re able to probe and find out the real causes of problems.

Double-loop learning is about sharing power and inviting inquiry. You’re not trying to save face or protect others by withholding information. People understand that setbacks are learning opportunities, so they are not paralyzed by a fear of failure.

Some important points:

  • This intellectual discipline starts with you. Leaders must model this behavior because if you try to tell other people to be less defensive, you’re probably going to spark the opposite reaction. If you espouse to value something, you need to demonstrate it. If you want honesty, then you must be honest. If you want accountability, you must show others that you are accountable. If you want servant leadership then you must serve others. You can’t just say it — you have to do it.
  • Ease into it. Productive reasoning is like meditation; it takes practice.
  • Teach others the practice. If your employees aren’t picking up on it, then you may need to be more overt. Encourage your people to present evidence of their thinking: “Give me some facts, John. Tell me why you’re advocating for this decision.”

It’s interesting that once you start practicing double-loop reasoning, you’ll quickly become aware of how often people are engaging in defensive postures.

Stamping out learning disabilities is especially important for second-stage entrepreneurs. As your company grows, you and your employees are taking on more problems — and many are new ones you haven’t tackled before. By fostering a culture of double-loop learning, you can enhance your team’s ability to move past intuitive guesswork, improve decision-making and create a more engaging, learning-centric workplace.

In the spirit of productive reasoning, I’d like to point out that this is a well-researched theory — yet this is merely my take on it. I could be wrong. What do you think?

Recommended reading and references: “Organizational Traps” by Chris Argyris, “Friend or Foe” by Adam Gakinsky and Maurice Schweitzer, “Winning” by Francesco Duina, and “More Time to Think” by Nancy Kline.

Copyright © 2016 by Edward Lowe Foundation

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