“Teaching Smart People How To Learn”

Chris Argyris published a really informative article in the Harvard Business Review called “Teaching Smart People How To Learn”.  When I first read the title I guess I assumed as others do, that smart people already know how to learn.  After all, isn’t learning well the definition of being smart?  It’s easy to take this whole thing out of context until you read the article, at which point you realize it is a pretty clever title.   

Common to most companies is the idea that given the proper motivation, people will learn, and will do a good job for their employers.  Most employers operate under the assumption that having an appropriate commitment to a company along with the right attitude will produce learning in most people.  What I gained from this article was the idea that this is not always the case.  Even the most committed and motivated employees are often unable to learn, not because of any intellectual deficiency, but because of a defective theory of action that has developed over the course of their lives. 

The deficiency as described by the author, is defensive reasoning and the Doom Loop.  I have realized defensiveness in my own personality at different times of my life, but I never realized how often I (and many others) become defensive purely as a result of the action rules that have developed over time.  These rules are not the rules that I would list as my personal ethics if I were asked.  What I, and other professionals tend to do is create a set of rules that I espouse and another that are instinctively followed.  Not that I feel most professionals are hypocritical, but there is a tendency in educated people to avoid embarrassment or that feeling of being vulnerable in front of peer groups.  This isn’t done cognitively, but rather instinctively as a defense mechanism to avoid looking bad. 

After reading this article, I realize that even though I try to take responsibility for my actions, there have been times in my career, when I have deflected and become defensive by shifting blame, unfairly criticizing, and even gossiping about coworkers and managers.  The problem with this; other than the obvious lack of character it shows, is that it prevents one from learning from their weaknesses and mistakes.  If you can’t admit your own flaws, how can you possibly learn from them.  I think it is crucial in all aspects of life.  Although the author intended this information as a way to improve manager-employee-coworker relations, there is great wisdom in removing the defense dominated action rule set from all relationships in which one is involved.  Perhaps acknowleding that tendancy is impetus enough to begin to change the rule set.


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