Have you ever wondered why it is so hard to achieve real change in organisations? Have you ever wondered why organisations don’t really seem to learn? Have you ever feared that, in spite of all the talk about change, it will really amount to nothing in the long run?
There’s little-known answer to these questions, backed by several decades of research. It’s not pretty, since it shows the true reasons why these problems are so incredibly hard to solve. Fortunately, it also offers a solution. The solution is difficult, requiring much commitment, patience and humility. …But then, if you think about it, you already knew there wouldn’t be an easy solution, right? :-)
In a nutshell
The heart of the problem is that we don’t learn because we don’t communicate effectively. When humans communicate, we tend to value these things:
- achieve my goals (as defined by me)
- win, don’t lose
- avoid triggering negative emotions in myself or others
Prof. Chris Argyris of Harvard University has found that these core values, or “governing variables” as he calls them, underlie most human communication. People espouse all sorts of ideas about we ought to communicate, but when Argyis and his colleagues observed how people actually do communicate, they found these same values occurred over and over again – across cultures, across genders and across many thousands of people. I don’t know whether these values are encoded in our DNA, installed in us by our culture(s), or just a pattern that our minds subconsciously settle upon. In any case, they form a consistent pattern of human communication, which I will refer to here as the “Default Communication Style”.
One consequence of the Default Communication Style is that, in trying to prevent triggering negative emotions, people unilaterally protect themselves and others. Rather than seeking the other party’s true thoughts, via genuine dialog, a person will guess or presume the other person’s thoughts and never put the guesses to the test. So we end up walking around our offices assuming that certain people have “bad” goals or intentions, without ever testing to see if our assumptions are actually true. (Often they are not). Wikipedia describes a few familiar symptoms: withholding information, creating rules to censor information and behaviour, and holding private meetings (aka talking about people behind their backs).
The values of “win; don’t lose” and “achieve my goals (as I define them)” also hinder the free and full exchange of information. All in all, the Default Communication Style causes people to withhold relevant thoughts and information. So, deprived of full information, our organisations fail to learn.
What’s the alternative?
Argyris suggests that we should adopt the following value set instead.
- give and receive valid information
- favour informed choice for all concerned (as opposed to unilateral control)
- mutual responsibility for “looking out” for each other
So we become more concerned with sharing what is on our minds, and equally we become more concerned with helping others to share what is on their minds. (Even when its different from our own views.). The best terms I’ve heard to describe this are “Advocacy and Inquiry” (*). Advocating our own thoughts with skill and openness; and inquiring into the thoughts of others with skill (again) and curiosity. We want to get the full picture flowing both ways: out of our own heads and into the group’s consciousness, and equally out of each other member of the group and into our own awareness.
When engaging in Advocacy and Inquiry, we should not be hamstrung by the desire to avoid causing offence. That’s not an open licence to be deliberately offensive, but rather a recognition that our normal cop-outs are self-defeating. When we avoid raising awkward issues, we ultimately let down ourselves and also the person who our silence is designed to “protect”.
You might not have heard of Argyris’s work before. But you probably will have heard of other people who have independently discovered the same ideas. For instance, the authors of the book Crucial Conversations followed around individuals who were good at “getting things done” in the workplace. The authors analysed the behaviour of these communication stars, to find out how they did it. The answer centres around adding one’s own contributions to the group’s “pool of meaning”, and helping others to do likewise. I see Crucial Conversations as a excellent “how to” manual, for Advocacy and Inquiry.
The classic guidebook to negotiation, Getting to Yes, emphasises sharing of valid information instead of “winning” one’s opening position.
Bob Sutton of Stanford writes a great blog, and summarizes the same ideas with the phrase
Argue like you’re right; listen like you’re wrong
Why is it so difficult?
There’s a danger that all of the above will sound like common sense. And to some degree it is. Its easy to look at, and say, “Yes, I think that’s a good idea”. It’s much harder is to actually put it into practice. When it comes to the Default Communication Style, we’ve each had a whole lifetime of practice. So, it is deeply ingrained in us, and we use it instinctively. And that is the real challenge: not simply to believe that Advocacy and Inquiry is the right way to go, but to actually act consistently with that belief in our moment-by-moment communication.
It is easy to fail. Argyris found that people can agree with his ideas, but still have trouble putting them in to practice. He calls this the difference between espoused theory (the theory expressed by what we claim to believe) and theory-in-use (the theory implied by what we actually do). I recently experienced the difference first hand. While having a conversation with a manager, I felt that the manager was becoming upset with what I was saying, so I backed away from fully expressing myself. And what was the topic? I was trying to say that we need more Advocacy and Inquiry!!! In a conversation about these exact issues, I still slipped back into Default behaviour when the going got tough!
Why do we fall back into our old habits? Because we are used to them — very skilled in them, in fact. We are much less skilled in Advocacy and Inquiry. So, when the going gets tough, we unconsciously fall back to our old ways.
What do we need to do?
Practice. Effective communication requires practice, just like playing tennis, reading music or programming a computer. You won’t be perfect when you first start practicing, but everyone has to start somewhere.
Actually, we don’t need only practice. It also helps to obtain some up-front knowledge of the topic. Something to “seed” our practice, so to speak. Two great starting points are the books Crucial Conversations, which I see as a manual for Advocacy and Inquiry, and Discussing the Undiscussable, which is a beginner’s guide to Argyris’s work. [If you buy the latter book from Amazon, be sure to order the hard copy rather than the e-book, because only the hard copy comes with the DVD showing example conversations]
Finally, I hope to post more on this topic myself over the coming months. So stay tuned… In the meantime, please leave questions, comments, and links to additional resources below.
(*) I’m calling the two sets of values the “Default Communication Style”, for the first, and “Advocacy and Inquiry” for the second. If you’re familiar withe Argyris’s work you’ll know that these are not the standard terms. Argyris himself uses the terms “Model I” and “Model II” respectively – with a self-deprecating grin at the blandness of the names. Other authors use the terms “Unilateral Control Model” and “Mutual Learning Model”. Those are good descriptive terms, but I just can’t imagine someone standing up at the front of a team meeting and saying, “Hey guys, we need to promote the Mutual Learning Model!”. It seems more plausible to say, “Hey guys, we need more Advocacy and Inquiry!”.