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 an easy answer, since it shows the true reasons why these problems are so incredibly hard to solve.  The solution requires 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 the majority of 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 core values occured repeatedly – even across a range of cultures and genders.

This pattern of values is referred to by authors in the field as “Unilateral Control”. “Unilateral” because the decision to exert control is made without consultation or discussion – we just do it. “Control” because we’re trying to control the situation. We’re trying to control the other person’s reactions (e.g. don’t upset them) and we’re trying to control their decisions (e.g. to get our own way).

One consequence of the Unilateral Control is that, in trying to prevent triggering negative emotions, people make incorrect guesses.  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” ideas 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, or creating rules to censor information and behaviour. Other symptoms which I've observed personally include ill-founded decisions and poor coordination between teams, due to people putting the emphasis on "what do I want to get out of this interaction", instead of fully exchanging relevant information.

What’s the alternative?

Argyris suggests that we should adopt the following value set:

  • give and receive valid information
  • favour informed choice for all concerned (as opposed to unilateral control)
  • instead of holding negative assumptions about what others are thinking, engage in enough dialog to confirm or disprove your assumptions

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.).  This is described as “Mutual Learning”.  “Mutual” because both parties are active and valued participants, and “Learning” because both parties are seeking, and giving, valid information.  Mutual Learning requires that we advocate our own thoughts with skill and openness; and inquire 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 out of each other member of the group and into our own awareness.

When engaging in Mutual Learning, we should not be hamstrung by the desire to avoid causing offence.  I’m not suggesting an open licence to cause deliberate offense, 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 supposedly “protecting”.

More evidence

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 making an impact in the workplace. The authors analysed the behaviour of these 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 Mutual Learning.

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. It's 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 Unilateral Control, we’ve each had a whole lifetime of practice.  So it is deeply ingrained in us and we use it instinctively.  So this is the real challenge: not simply to believe that Mutual Learning is the right way to go, but to actually act consistently with that belief in our moment-by-moment conversations.

Argyris calls this the difference between espoused theory (the theory 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 so I backed away from fully expressing myself.  By refraining from fully expressing myself I was preventing Mutual Learning and reverting to Unilateral Control. I had unilaterally decided to “control” his reaction by withholding information.  And what was the topic of our conversation?  We were talking about Mutual Learning!!!  In a conversation about these very issues, I slipped back into Unilateral Control when the going got tough!

Why do we fall back into our old habits? Because we are accustomed to them — very skilled in them, in fact.  We are much less skilled in Mutual Learning.  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.

It also helps to obtain some up-front knowledge of the topic.  Something to “seed” our practice. Two great starting points are the books Crucial Conversations, which I see as a manual for Mutual Learning, 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]

You can find additional resources at Benjamin Mitchell’s blog, at Action Design, and two particularly good and comprehensive overviews here (I highly recommend this one) and here.

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.


(*) Instead of the user-friendly terms Unilateral Control and Mutual Learning,  Argyris himself uses the terms “Model I” and “Model II” – with a self-deprecating grin at the blandness of the names.

Update 2018: I edited this post to improve readability and make the terminology more consistent.

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