The learning path
The purpose of these first chapters is to raise our understanding of the way we work, think and feel, and to see the implications for how we manage, lead and live. The learning path need not end with "losing the plot". Instead it can move on to a process of continuous learning. Before we summarise this, however, two more reflections on the institutionalised dangers of rules and regulations and so of obedience. Chris Argyris is the James B Conant Professor at Harvard Business School. He has researched the special problems faced by professionals in learning and by corporations in holding open and questioning debate.13. His findings emphasise the difficulties intensely trained experts have in considering their own shortcomings. Committed as they are to perfection, falling short, to their way of thinking, is too unacceptable to contemplate – so they look to blame others. Argyris describes four basic values that seem to lie behind how we actually behave. We want:
- to remain in unilateral control.
- to maximise winning and minimise losing.
- to suppress negative feelings about ourselves.
- to have clear objectives and outcomes.
"The purpose of these values is to avoid embarrassment or threat, feeling vulnerable or incompetent". The result is a defensiveness that is far removed from the openly espoused continual professional development and self–improvement we associate with such experts. And, in much the same way, it is this refusal to be open to learning, because of the criticism implied, that lies behind the continual failure of organisations, boards of directors and teams, to encourage frank self–criticism. Argyris describes a series of consistent methods of rejecting learning:
- Action backfires because executives defend their own territories or positions.
- Poor decisions are blamed on others, or on the system.
- Organisations have built–in inertia that blocks change.
- Upward communications of difficult issues is blocked for fear of being penalised.
- People do not act even when it is in their best interests to do so. And one could add that this socialisation means that we find it extremely difficult to disagree, criticise, and deal with the fear of having failed. Instead we respond to our desire to be friendly, to care by placating, excusing or saying nothing. We don’t like to hurt people’s feelings.
Gradually the organisation develops issues that are "undiscussable".
Organisations all too easily become environments in which normal people will behave abnormally, purely to conform. An example of this is described by Professor Milgram of Yale University in his book "Obedience to Authority" (London: Tavistock 1974). Milgram invited a random group of people to assess how far punishment would facilitate learning. The "student" sat in one room, the "teacher" in another. Every time the "student" made a mistake, the "teacher" had to administer an increasing level of electric shock. The "teacher" applicants did not know their pupils were actors. There was no particular pressure placed on the "teachers", apart from the clear outline of the experiment, its purpose, its value and the specific rules that were to be followed. And yet the outcome was startling and frightening in its implications. Despite the screams of pain from their pupils, many of the teachers had little hesitation in raising the shock levels beyond the danger mark. The detailed reactions of some of the "teachers" make for unpleasant reading – laughing at the pupils’ screams, becoming increasingly authoritarian, continuing with an icy indifference to the pupils’ pain, disgust at the pupils’ failures. 26 of Milgram’s 40 "teachers" were prepared to, and did, administer the maximum, and supposedly lethal, voltage shock.
Milgram’s study and subsequent discussions with his "teachers" showed just how far ordinary people would go when placed in the social context of obedience to an authority figure. Personal values become suppressed, enquiry ceases.
"I was following orders….", "I was doing what the others were doing….." "That’s the way we do things here", "It’s what you asked me to do….." Milgram’s study is important. His findings evoke for all of us the Eichmann and Nazi defence of simply following orders. But no less alarming and important has been the manner in which his experiment has been criticised by Western psychology. Milgram was attacked for "misleading" his volunteers, and for hiding the aims of his research from them. No–one, it seems, wanted to confront the shaming reality of his conclusions or to consider their implications. No–one, so far, has criticised the results! It is as though society has, itself, been only too happy to use the issues surrounding the ethics of this test to allow them to hide from its consequences.
Read on to find out what leaders should do.