On Learning and Why We Suck At It

I was fortunate enough late last week when Russ Wylie sent a link to an article by Chris Argyris titled “Teaching Smart People to Learn”.

This has been recognised by Harvard Business Review as a “Classic” and I have been thinking about the ways that we communicate and learn within organisations – especially those that employ “professionals”.

Argyris makes a number of very valid observations and there are some quotes from the article that stand out with regard to the barriers we can develop to our learning once “on the job”.  It revolves around the behaviours we think we live by and the behaviours we actually demonstrate (aka: not walking the talk).

Some quotes from the article that should get you thinking (or seeking greater knowledge):

“…success in the marketplace increasingly depends on learning, yet most people don’t know how to learn…I am talking about the well-educated, high-powered, high-commitment professionals who occupy key leadership positions in the modern corporation.”

“…most people define learning too narrowly as mere ‘problem solving’, so they focus on identifying and correcting errors in the external environment…but if learning is to persist, managers and employees must also look inward.  They need to reflect critically on their own behaviour, identify ways they often inadvertently contribute to the organization’s problems, and then change how they act.  In particular, they must learn how the very way they go about defining and solving problems can be the source of problems in its own right.”

“Put simply, because many professionals have almost always successful at what they do, they rarely experience failure.  And because they have rarely failed, they have never learned how to learn from failure.  So whenever…their…leaarning strategies go wrong, they become defensive, screen out criticism, and put the ‘blame’ on anyone and everyone but themselves.  In short, their ability to learn shuts down precisely at the moment they need it most.”

“The fact is, more and more jobs – no matter what the title – are taking on the contours of ‘knowledge work’.  People at all levels of the organization must combine the mastery of some highly specialized technical expertise with the ability to work effectively in teams, form productive relationships with clients and customers, and critically reflect on and then change their own organzational practices.”

It is often self-evident in many organisations that I see that the senior management perpetuate the “blame game” when things go wrong.  It will be externalised.  The focus is “them not us”.  This reeks of (quite a bit of) arrogance.

Knowing your own behavioural style and the “why” of your business and your people changes this equation totally.  By understanding your own approach and how it impacts on your role and your actions, you will have a profoundly more powerful method of conveying your message and being able to provide authentic and consistent leadership.

Luckily, there are tools available to enable you to do this – the Trimetrix tool being one and the Growth Curve Xray being the other.  These put the focus on where you are, the challenges you face (not in a negative way) and help you and your team get clarity around communication and activities that are required to move the team forward in a sustainable, open and powerful way.  (My little plug here – we’re accredited specialists in both Trimetrix and Growth Curve so call us if you’d like to discuss.)

If you’d like to read the full article to further develop your understanding of Argyris’ thinking and observations, it can be found here.

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