Friday, May 31, 2013

When the Big Dogs Refuse to Learn New Tricks

A regular reader asks: The middle managers at my facility think learning is great—for their subordinates.  How can I get them to accept that learning new ideas, viz., contemporary safety culture (SC) concepts or approaches, is also good for them?

This is a tough nut to crack but we'll give it a shot.  We'll take a brief look at why these managers resist changing their own behavior, i.e., find it hard to learn.  Then we'll present some strategies for engaging them in an effort to modify their attitudes and behavior.

Why managers resist learning 

Management theorists and practical experience provide some reasons why this problem arises.  We'll start with the individual and then look at the work group.

A classic article by management theorist Chris Argyris* provides a good starting point (although it's not a perfect fit with the question at hand).  Argyris' basic argument is as follows: Many highly skilled “professionals are almost always successful at what they do, . . . because they have rarely failed, they have never learned how to learn from failure. . . . they become defensive, screen out criticism, and the put the “blame” on anyone and everyone but themselves.” (p. 100)  In practice, they engage in defensive reasoning, guided by their true (as opposed to espoused) values: maintain control; maximize winning and minimize losing; suppress negative feelings and avoid open conflicts; and be as “rational” as possible, i.e., define clear objectives but allow limited freedom of choice in strategy selection. 

In other words, past successes breed confidence in managers to continue doing what they've been doing and construct defenses against unwelcome, potentially threatening changes.

In the work group, these managers sit on top of their silos, controlling the careers and paychecks of those below them.  Recognized success in achieving assigned goals provides feedback that one's managerial approach is effective and correct.  Managers manage and subordinates comply.  If subordinates' performance is deficient, then progressive discipline is used to correct the situation.  Step one or two of a typical program is to require subordinates to learn (or relearn) applicable policies, programs, procedures, etc.  If the manager is dealing with such a situation, then he's OK and it's the subordinate who has a problem.  More success breeds more confidence.

What can the change agent do?

Maybe very little.  You can't fix stupid, but you can (occasionally) fix arrogance or over-confidence if the proper opportunity appears, or you can create it.  Opportunities may arise from the external environment, within the work group or internal to the manager.  Some candidate challenges include those confronting the entire organization (e.g. risk of shutdown), the work group (e.g., scoring significantly lower than other groups on the latest SC survey) or the individual manager (e.g., a new, unfamiliar boss, a top-down SC initiative or a review of his compensation plan).

What you're looking for is a teachable moment when the manager faces a significant challenge, preferably one that places him at existential risk in the organization.  Why?  Because comfortable people are only motivated to change when it's perceived as less dangerous than staying put.

You'll need an action plan to promote your value-add to the resolution of the particular challenge.  And an “elevator speech” to promote your plan when you bump into the boss coming out of the executive washroom. 

What if you don't have a crisis handy? 

Then you need to go hunting for a candidate to “help.”  We know that many middle managers are satisfied with their positions and content to remain at that level for the balance of their careers.  They are transactional not transformational characters.  But some are more ambitious, they may exhibit what psychologist David McClelland called a high nAch, the need for Achievement.  And, as Maslow taught us, unsatisfied needs motivate behavior.  So these managers seek to prove their superior worth to their bosses, perhaps by undertaking some new task or program initiative.  If you can identify one of these people, you can work on educating him on the value of SC to his career; the goal is to get him to champion, promote and model SC.  And you need to talk to the senior managers to help get your champion recognized, rewarded, promoted or at least made more promotable.

In short, you can wait in the bushes, biding your time, until opportunities come along or you can try to initiate change or act as a change catalyst.  You don't need Sigmund Freud or Margaret Mead to help you figure out what to do.  You need patience, an action plan and the will to jump on opportunities when they arise.

*  C. Argyris, “Teaching Smart People to Learn,” Harvard Business Review (May-June, 1991), pp. 99-109.  The same Safetymatters reader who asked the initial question also recommended this article.  Kudos to him.

Argyris is perhaps best known for his concepts of single-loop and double-loop learning.  In single loop learning, actions are designed to achieve specified goals and questions or conflicts about governing variables are suppressed.  In double loop learning, the governing variables are subjected to scrutiny and, if necessary, actions are taken to attempt to transform them.  This can broaden the range of strategic choices for achieving the original goals.  Single loop learning leads to defensive reasoning, double loop learning reflects productive reasoning.  Productive reasoning is characterized by dissemination and consideration of complete information, minimal defensiveness and open confrontation of difficult issues.

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