Sunday, November 19, 2006

Espoused versus enacted theory

I just read the following post to the ILA listerv this morning (dated 11-8-06). It explores belief/theory as we espouse it versus what we act on.

Before Rumsfeld was fired I published this on my website blog. Seems related to this discussion.

I was listening to an interview with NY Times journalist, Bob Woodward in which he spoke about how the self-confidence of Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld caused him to disregard the advice of his most senior Pentagon advisors about post-invasion Iraq. Woodward's impression is that Rumsfeld is very knowledgeable and charming, and that his intellect gives him a lot of self-confidence. The current violence in the middle east and Iraq is a testimony to the wisdom of his advisors.

Hearing this story set me off searching for what the leadership researchers and pundits have to say about self-confidence. Notably, they don't have much to say. What I did find, however, was quite a bit about self-esteem. I got to thinking that perhaps the reason many people like to defer to persons in leadership roles might stem from a confusion between self-esteem and self-confidence.

Self-confidence is an important attribute for leaders, and ironically real self-confidence relies on self-esteem. Too much self-confidence without self-esteem can easily turn into arrogance, dominance, power and control. When I think about the most able and competent leaders I've known, they all share a willingness to let go of control. It makes sense. When you really have confidence in something and you know in your heart and your gut it's right for you, your constituents and the context, its easier to give attention to what others have to say and to collaborate.

Chris Argyris, a former Yale University professor and the James Bryant Conant Professor of Education and Organizational Behavior at Harvard University studied formal organizational structures, control systems, and management on individuals and how they responded and adapted to them. He encouraged leaders and managers to have confidence in their actions by being willing to test what he called their espoused theory-of-action against their theory-in-use.

The relationship between 'espoused theory and theory-in-use is similar to the relationship beween grammar-in-use and speech. These relationships contain assumptions about self, others and context which constitute a microcosm of science in everyday life' The words we use to convey what we do or what we would like others to think we do, can then be called espoused theory. (Argyris & Schön 1974: 30) "When someone is asked how he would behave under certain circumstances, the answer he usually gives is his espoused theory of action for that situation. This is the theory of action to which he gives allegiance, and which, upon request, he communicates to others. However, the theory that actually governs his actions is this theory-in-use. "(Argyris and Schön 1974: 6-7).

Perhaps you're thinking to yourself, I'm sure I don't espouse one theory and do something else. You may be right. The best way to find out is to test your theory-of-action by asking others for feedback about the impact of your actions and behavior and comparing it to your true intentions. Don't be surprised if you find there's a difference. It's a well documented phenomenon of human nature that we do not see ourselves as others see us which helps explain alot of the confusion and discord in organizations and the world.

The lesson: when leading others, knowledge and pure intellect is both an asset and a liability. It gives us the confidence to take a stand so that others can have confidence in us. And it can also prohibit us from being open to sharing control and having confidence in others. When you are commited to your espoused intentions, honest feedback can be very helpful news about the effectiveness of your actions.


Lucy E Garrick, M.A. WSD
NorthShore Group
Organization and Leadership Development
Seattle, WA

The last paragraph gets to the core of the question - When is intelligence and self-confidence an asset versus liability? Note to self - self-esteem informed by humility and respect for others is probably key to living with confidence that allows us to tap the intelligence and contribution of others.

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