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The reasons we give vs. the reasons we live by
Why do so many individuals and groups say one thing and do another? There's a framework for that.
Let me not posture
Let me not front
Let me not say yes to
Lives I don’t want
adrienne maree brown, from “Authenticity Chant”
We all know arts organizations that craft beautiful statements of mission, purpose, and core values, but then behave as if they never read them. When the going gets tough, quite often, the tough get sidetracked. And a widening gulf appears between what a group of people say they care about and what they actually do.
Organizational scholars Chris Argyris and Donald Schön found this disconnect to be extraordinarily common across contexts and cultures. Their research suggests that individuals and groups have two theories of action that either align or don’t.
“Espoused theory” – the theory of action people believe and say out loud when asked “why did you do that?” Quite often this theory aligns with the social norms and expectations of the organization or its surrounding culture.
“Theory-in-use” – the theory of action that can be inferred from actual choices and behaviors. This theory is often invisible to the actors, as it’s buried in deeper human motivations and goals.
For example, a nonprofit governing board may have an espoused theory of inclusion and positive change (posted on their website, featured in their job listings, discussed at their meetings), but they keep hiring leadership from the same circles. Or, they hire a leader specifically to initiate change, but then abandon that leader when change starts taking shape (see this case study in the ArtsManaged Field Guide).
Espoused theory and theory-in-use aren’t always miles apart. Argyris and Schön found that the distance and difference could be minimal when people or groups face routine or familiar issues. “However,” Argyris wrote, “when it comes to complex issues – issues that can cause embarrassment, or may represent a threat to a person or an organization – espoused theories almost never operate” (Christensen 2008).
In those moments, theory-in-use can override the stated and believed governing values with a remarkably consistent alternative value set. As Argyris puts it (2002):
There seems to be a universal human tendency to design one’s actions consistently according to four basic values:
To remain in unilateral control;
To maximize ‘‘winning’’ and minimize ‘‘losing’’;
To suppress negative feelings; and
To be as ‘‘rational’’ as possible – by which people mean defining clear objectives and evaluating their behavior in terms of whether or not they have achieved them.
These default values lead individuals and groups into defensive thinking – keeping their inferences hidden, testing their reasoning only in ways that support their defensive position, withholding or distorting communications in “mixed messages.” Worse yet, these defensive tactics are generally invisible to the participants since concealment from self and others is central to their success.
So how do you avoid or escape this “doom loop”? First, you strive to notice it (even to expect it) in yourself and your teammates. When you’re approaching or engaged in “difficult, unprogrammed, non-routine decisions,” know that you’re particularly vulnerable. In those moments, and in general, Argyris and Schön suggest explicitly following a set of governing values that counteract the default theory-in-use, including:
Obtaining valid information
Creating conditions for free and informed choices, and
Accepting personal responsibility for one’s actions.
And finally, acknowledge and even celebrate that you and those around you are humans – inconsistent, complex, with rich inner lives and competing motivations and demands. Even as you hold each other accountable, be kind and curious, rather than shocked and surprised, when it turns out you act like people.
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From the ArtsManaged Field Guide
Function of the Week: Hosting & Guesting
Hosting involves inviting, greeting, and supporting those who enter your circle; Guesting includes acknowledging, honoring, and listening in the circles where you are a guest.
Framework of the Week: Adizes’ Four Management Styles
Management consultant Ichak Adizes describes four "concern structures" that capture dominant energies and actions for different styles of management. All four are essential to a thriving enterprise. But each of the four is in tension with the other three.
Argyris, Chris. “Teaching Smart People How to Learn.” Harvard Business Review 69, no. 3 (June 5, 1991): 99–109.
Argyris, Chris, and Donald A. Schön. Theory in Practice: Increasing Professional Effectiveness. 1st ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1974.
Christensen, Karen. “Thought Leader Interview: Chris Argyris.” Rotman: The Magazine of the Rotman School of Management, 2008.
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