Teaching smart people to learn

26 Jan

“Failure is the opportunity to begin again more intelligently.” — Henry Ford II

In a Harvard Business Review article, Teaching Smart People How to Learn, Chris Argyris points out the invisible obstacle that even the best and brightest among us can’t outrun: the self and its defense mechanisms against failure.

Exposure to failure is critical for human learning and growth. Yet few people consciously approach failing openly with that goal in mind. How do we set up “controlled” failure with learning as its goal?

I worked in health care marketing communications for 13 years, primarily in an acute-care hospital setting. When you work in the hospital environment, you get to know nurses really well – how they’re oriented, what drives them, how they behave. And for every nurse I’ve ever encountered, the No.-1 value and belief is “The patient is first.” In fact, they even make a Florence Nightingale pledge at their pinning ceremony, similar to the Hippocratic oath physicians take.

In the acute-care environment, where managing costs and lengths of stay are the bywords of the day, this patient-first focus is bound to cause tension between nurses and management. Argyris’ article brought back memories from early in my career, memories of entrenched nurses and equally entrenched management team members, each seemingly unwilling to admit another viewpoint or approach. (This entrenchment eventually led to the nurses unionizing.) The more one group tried to argue for the “rightness” of its approach, the more upset the other became. Their values were simply too far out of line.

As referenced in the article, one of the most difficult personal balancing acts is to reflect critically on one’s own behavior. Humans tend to align around basic defensive values that promote a sense of personal success. I applied this more broadly than just people identified as being smart through their education or achievement; I think most employees, at all levels, are smart.

Argyris studied and dissected a fairly uniform and homogenous group: high-level management consultants at firms such as McKinsey. However, the possible approaches he outlines become more complex in your typical heterogeneous large organization than in the somewhat rarefied population he studied. Certain employee populations will be even more resistant to failure and learning than the management consultants studied, especially if there is a pernicious anti-management bias.

Argyris says “Defensive reasoning can block learning even when the individual commitment to it is high …” Well, what about when the individual commitment to learning is low? Not every employee values learning — some are resistant. What then?

I strongly agree with Argyris’ primary conclusion: Senior management should turn the mirror on themselves first. In interpersonal relationships, at the moment you begin to most blame the other person, that’s the moment you most need to observe your own behavior. Sometimes, it’s your own fear speaking. So for a particularly volatile situation, perhaps management should practice observation and looking within for a period of time first. No question, these are tough skills to teach. If the layers are too embedded, too hostile, the case-study approach he outlines might be really difficult or ineffective, even with outside consultants leading the discussion.

This article was published in 1991, so presumably there has been additional research and new knowledge acquired about how to help people learn. What more have we learned since then about how to help people learn best and question their assumptions?

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