Teaching Smart People How to Learn

Put 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. So whenever their single-loop learning 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 the most.

The common assumption is that 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. … Defensive reasoning can block learning even when the individual commitment to it is high

And yet the moment the quest for continuous improvement turned to the professionals’ own performance, something went wrong. … What happened? The professionals began to feel embarrassed. They were threatened by the prospect of critically examining their own role in the organization. Indeed, because they were so well paid (and generally believed that their employers were supportive and fair), the idea that their performance might not be at its best made them feel guilty.

Far from being a catalyst for real change, such feelings caused most to react defensively. They projected the blame for any problems away from themselves and onto what they said were unclear goals, insensitive and unfair leaders, and stupid clients.

Consider this example. At a premier management consulting company, the manager of a case team called a meeting to examine the team’s performance on a recent consulting project.

The professionals were using their criticisms of others to protect themselves from the potential embarrassment of having to admit that perhaps they too had contributed to the team’s less-than-perfect performance. What’s more, the fact that they kept repeating their defensive actions in the face of the manager’s efforts to turn the group’s attention to its own role shows that this defensiveness had become a reflexive routine. From the professionals’ perspective, they weren’t resisting; they were focusing on the “real” causes.

The end result was an unproductive parallel conversation. Both the manager and the professionals were candid; they expressed their views forcefully. But they talked past each other, never finding a common language to describe what had happened with the client. The professionals kept insisting that the fault lay with others. The manager kept trying, unsuccessfully, to get the professionals to see how they contributed to the state of affairs they were criticizing.

By constantly turning the focus away from their own behavior to that of others, the professionals bring learning to a grinding halt. The manager understands the trap but does not know how to get out of it. To learn how to do that requires going deeper into the dynamics of defensive reasoning — and into the special causes that make professionals so prone to it.

The purpose of all these values is to avoid embarrassment or threat, feeling vulnerable or incompetent. In this respect, the master program that most people use is profoundly defensive.

In other words, the case team members once again denied their own responsibility by externalizing the problem and putting it on someone else.

They also have never developed the tolerance for feelings of failure or the skills to deal with these feelings.

As a result, many professionals have extremely “brittle” personalities. When suddenly faced with a situation they cannot immediately handle, they tend to fall apart.

Change has to start at the top because otherwise defensive senior managers are likely to disown any transformation in reasoning patterns coming from below. If professionals or middle managers begin to change the way they reason and act, such changes are likely to appear strange — if not actually dangerous — to those at the top.

One simple approach I have used to get this process started is to have participants produce a kind of rudimentary case study. The subject is a real business problem that the manager either wants to deal with or has tried unsuccessfully to address in the past. Writing the actual case usually takes less than an hour. But then the case becomes the focal point of an extended analysis.

In a paragraph or so, the CEO described a meeting he intended to have with his direct reports to address the problem. Next, he divided the paper in half, and on the right-hand side of the page, he wrote a scenario for the meeting — much like the script for a movie or play — describing what he would say and how his subordinates would likely respond. On the left-hand side of the page, he wrote down any thoughts and feelings that he would be likely to have during the meeting but that he wouldn’t express for fear they would derail the discussion.

But instead of holding the meeting, the CEO analyzed this scenario with his direct reports. The case became the catalyst for a discussion in which the CEO learned several things about the way he acted with his management team.

[We discover where are perceptions are wrong and what our misunderstandings are.] “They are not just solving problems but developing a far deeper and more textured understanding of their role as members of the organization”

Buddhism, mixed with my current interests in economics, privilege, immigration, etc. Email <my username>@gmail.com