Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Teaching Smart People How to Learn

In this article, the author Chris Argyris puts it simply, "because many professionals are 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." He basically says that when these individuals are wrong, they become defensive, screen out criticism, and blame anyone and everyone but themselves. In short, their ability to learn shuts down precisely at the moment they need it the most.

Getting people to learn is largely a matter of motivation. When people have the right attitudes and commitment, learning automatically follows. So companies focus on creating new organizational structures—compensation programs, performance reviews, corporate cultures, and the like—that are designed to create motivated and committed employees.

For 15 years, the author of this article studied professionals and their learning habits. He determined that as long as efforts at learning and change focused on external organizational factors - such as job redesign, compensation programs, performance review, and leadership training—the professionals were enthusiastically learning. However, as soon as the focus turned to the professional's own performance, their motivation and commitment to excellence was gone. Argyris determined that this occurred because the professionals were threatened by the prospect of critically examining their own role in the organization, making them feel vulnerable. This resulted in defensive reasoning.

To counter defensive reasoning, Argyris suggests the professionals need to learn how to reason productively. People can be taught how to recognize the reasoning they use when they design and implement their actions. They can begin to identify the inconsistencies between their perceived and actual theories of action. Once they have an understanding of what they do and how they do it, the professionals will learn more efficiently and effectively.

Source: http://pds8.egloos.com/pds/200805/20/87/chris_argyris_learning.pdf


  1. I'd be interested in seeing a "How-To" for the countering of defensive reasoning. Reading through the other blog posts, I get the sense that teaching professionals challenges their implicit learning; they have learned how to succeed but cannot consciously comprehend learning from failure. Argyris's suggestions to counter defensive reasoning seems to be more of a therapy session than it does teaching professionals how to learn from failure; do corporations have the time and money to for each individual that needs to overcome defensive reasoning?

  2. When I read this article, I took it as a cautionary tale of what to expect when we enter the I.C. We're probably going to be dealing with many experienced people who have succeeded in their careers who are not going to be willing to let us just take over. It reminded me of what Kris said in class on Tuesday about Mercyhurst grads being naive about what happens in the real world. If some professionals haven't had to learn from mistakes throughout their careers, it doesn't surprise in the least bit that they'd engage in defensive reasoning.

  3. Have you seen the book non violent comunications by Marshall Rosenberg?