Posted by: A.R. Cherian | September 3, 2009

Teaching Smart People How to Learn

The case reading for this week in BADM720 was Teaching Smart People How to Learn (1991) by HBS Professor Emeritus Chris Argyris, who has written extensively over the years on learning organizations. The main points that I took away from the reading were

  • Understand that we all (especially well-educated people) have a tendency to react defensively when confronted with failures in the workplace
  • Learn to critically examine our faults and shortcomings in the context of the company’s problem
  • See if we are passing the blame unfairly to others
  • In a learning organization all members should learn to reason productively. It should start with upper management

I do believe that learning should be a lifestyle and a lifelong process. I also wholeheartedly agree with Argyris that failures in life present a valuable learning experience. Argyris argues that most elite professionals are almost always successful at what they do and have rarely experienced failures in their academic pursuits and their professions. Therefore, they do not know how to cope well with failure and learn from it. They tend to react defensively and try to place the blame on others. His thesis is that it is often the smartest people in an organization who have the hardest time learning how to improve their performance and their company’s effectiveness.  Indeed, the case studies he writes about illustrate this point very well.

Looking back on my own life, I can say that I have done relatively well in my academic studies and profession. However, I do not consider myself elite or “at the top” – far from it. I have honestly faced failures at school and at work. They hurt at the time, but looking back I can honestly say that I learned from those experiences and was better for it. Recalling those failures, I did not pass the blame. After an academic failure in a semester in my undergraduate studies (getting an F in a class), I placed the blame squarely on myself. The next semester I worked hard to correct the situation the situation and succeeded (got an A in the retake) and learned valuable lessons about my priorities and capabilities. I wonder if the defensive reasoning of the professionals Argyris mentions comes from arrogance – from considering themselves above others in what they do and immune from failure.

As professionals in an ever increasing competitive global economy, we face tremendous job pressures to perform well on the job. Therefore, it is our natural tendency to fear failure and try to avoid it completely. Who wants to fail? I don’t think most normal people will deliberately try to fail at something (especially in their workplaces), but failure in the workplace especially at something like a large project is usually a compound problem not from your own doing and with many multifaceted issues behind it. In order for an organization to better itself and learn from its mistakes it’s important that it creates an atmosphere were it can learn what exactly were the root causes and how to mitigate them in the future.

The “real world” is where you can expect to experience most of your failures. Indeed, you should expect it. I think it is important to realize that failures will occur and when it does, we have to use it as an opportunity to learn and not repeat the same mistakes in the future. I think the point that Argyris is trying to get at is that in order to learn from the failures, we have to evaluate ourselves fairly (reduce the bias about ourselves)  and see if the problem or failure is the result of our faults and shortcomings as well.  One thing I have learned in all settings in life is to be careful where you place blame.  Argyris emphasizes this point.

Lastly, it is important that all key personnel on the failed project or issue realize that it is in their best interest and the company’s best interest to learn from the failure. Meetings should be open and participants should be given the chance to express their true feelings about the subject without repercussion. However, there must be data or examples to back up their feelings and assertions about a matter. The healthy meetings illustrated in the article highlight that point.

In conclusion, I enjoyed reading this article. It was well written and thoroughly documented with case studies. I think what I will take most from it is that I have to deliberately catch myself reacting defensively. I should be ever vigilant for that. Usually that can indicate that the fault or failure, in part or entirety,  lies somewhere with me. I have to use that as an opportunity to probe for what are the true causes of the failure and then express those opinions with my colleagues and superiors and come to a mutual consensus as to what are the best lessons my company can learn to prevent such failures in the future.  Failures will occur and should be expected – however they should be different types of failures.  Encountering the same type of failures just means that effective learning is not taking place

What do you think? Should this type of training to teach smart people how to learn be mandatory in the workplace? For all employees?


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