January 16, 2018

What’s the difference between espoused theories and theories in use?

Group in discussion at computerThe short answer is ego.

Organisations, teams, and individuals (including ourselves) have a habit of claiming to operate according to a set of theories that apply to our work. With the best of intentions, we set out to do our business based on a set of assumptions we would like to be true.

In fact, observation of what actually happens will usually reveal something different. In a perspective first articulated by Chris Argyris, we operate according to a rather different set of assumptions—our “theories in use.” It’s these theories-in-use that govern what is really done.

For example, espoused theories might be around customer service. In some organisations, unfortunately, the theories in use might have more to do with profit maximisation. The result is a debilitating disconnection between what management claims to be about and what it’s really about.

When challenged on this, leaders will typically resist admitting what drives them isn’t what they would like it to be. Their ego won’t let them.

Unaddressed, ego will maintain the discrepancy between espoused theories and theories in use, preventing the organisation (or the person) from really understanding itself, in turn preventing it from adapting and changing and growing.

An important role of leaders is to overcome this tendency, both in themselves and in others.

How closely aligned are your theories in use and your espoused theories? Can you see any gap between how you say you operate and how you really operate?

Another way this manifests can be summarised by “we judge others by their actions and ourselves by our intentions.”

Time to reflect on our actions perhaps.

The danger of creeping mediocrity

Run down houseIn owning and operating something complex, like a house, for instance, it’s easy to let small flaws grow into big ones. If we don’t deal with minor issues in a relentless way, eventually the whole entity is degraded.

It’s like that with a business or an organisation…

If we tolerate mediocrity, even in situations where the individual issue doesn’t matter very much, eventually we have a degraded organisation.

If we accept mediocrity in a business, eventually it’ll fail.

That doesn’t mean we should be paralysed by an attempt to achieve unattainable perfection. It does mean we should insist on the best possible—from ourselves and others.

How do you keep mediocrity at bay?

How fast can we go?

TeamTraditionally, we said “at the pace of the slowest man.” Nowadays, we’d say “person,” of course.

In times of change, is that really right? Do we need to go at the speed of the team as a whole?

Change does take time. We can accelerate it by providing suitable experiences, and instilling suitable tools and techniques.

But people need time to grow; time to process; time to come to terms with new information.

It’s not the same as figuring out something intellectual.

There’s a cooking time.

Allowing for it—within reason—will take us forward faster, not slower.

How do you decide the best speed?

Blending the intervention

Four people speaking in front of a laptopWe don’t have all the answers. That’s true whether we’re on the outside of the issue looking in or on the inside looking out.

The leadership team knows its business, whereas the change agent knows something useful the insiders don’t currently have. Neither has all the answers, nor even all of the pieces available collectively.


The way forward needs to be a blend of both—both what the leadership team already has and what the change agent is bringing, but not usually all of either.

For the necessary co-creation to happen, both parties need to let go of something—to give up part of their model.

Are you ready to do that?

Are you leading with your professional paradigm?

Group discussionThey say the way we do anything is the way we do everything.

When it comes to leadership and management, we tend to lead and manage in a paradigm dictated by our professional or vocational expertise—our worldview, if you like. For example…

Scientists manage scientifically.

Engineers manage with systems and processes.

Academics lead academically.

Accountants manage financially.

Typically, the leadership culture in an organisation reflects the nature of what it does.

But actually…

There’s no good reason why it should; there’s an explanation, but not a reason.

Management and leadership are both different arts in their own right, generally requiring a much greater understanding of human beings and a deeper affinity with them—something quite different from a vocational expertise.

Worth checking whether we’re over-applying our professional paradigm in our leadership role.

Good to adopt a distinct model for that part of what we do.

And that might mean abandoning some certainties.

The dog barks again

The dog barks againThe tea is poured. The seating is comfortable. The TV is OK.

But the biscuit isn’t wanted. No big deal. It’s set down on the coffee table.

The dog barks at the biscuit.

The dog is hushed.

The dog barks again, louder.

The dog is given a bit of the biscuit.

Soon, the barking resumes.

The dog is hushed again.

You know what happens next.

The owner is teaching the dog…

Bark, and you might get a bit of biscuit, and

If you don’t get a bit of biscuit, bark again, louder.

The owner is inadvertently “reinforcing” the behaviour he doesn’t want (barking).

What behaviour are you inadvertently rewarding—in dogs or people or anything else?

To illustrate with the dog… if you want a different outcome, you need to (1) refuse absolutely to give them the biscuit when they’re barking and (2) give them the biscuit when they’re not barking.

Sounds simple?

It’s not the pattern we typically follow.

Are you at arm’s length?

Two doctors in discussionIt all depends on your perspective of course…

Who’s at arms length from who? We might feel more secure keeping uncomfortable (but needed) influences at arm’s length.

The thing is…

It’s tempting to keep people at that distance; to not let them in.

But it makes us hard to reach; at arm’s length from what we need.

Not so smart really.

Might be wise to let them closer.

The edge of expertise

Business People in a Board meetingWe tend to be most comfortable working in the centre ground of our expertise—where we’re really pretty sure of our ground.


That may not be what’s most useful to people, or to us. That may not be where we make the most difference, or learnt the most.

Often, other people want our help at the edge of their expertise and that’s likely to take us away from where we’re totally sure. Nevertheless, our insights, even if they’re tentative, may help them a lot.

Inklings at the edge of our expertise could be more valuable than certainty in the middle.

Sometimes, the more uncomfortable we are, the more useful our contribution is.

Maybe you need to go the edge more.

As Neale Donald Walsh said, “Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.”

Acting today to justify who we were yesterday

How others see us, and what to do about itWe tend to favour consistency. We act in a way that aligns with who we were before. Then everything is nice and tidy. It’s not embarrassing. It might be rather ineffective, or even plain wrong, but it’s not embarrassing to carry on in the same groove.

We do all this unconsciously: Without really thinking about it…

We act today to justify how we were yesterday, or who we were yesterday, or what we did yesterday.

But actually…

It might be smart to change; to do something different—especially if we’ve figured out that doing or being something different might work better.


It is embarrassing to make the change: We’re implicitly admitting we were wrong, or at least not the best we could be. Courage is definitely required.

It’s still the best thing to do though.

And we help other people grow by our example.


Which bits of how you used to be yesterday might it be worth leaving behind—or at least, making them part of your past rather than your present, perhaps remembered with a metaphorical photo in the album?

The unceasing merit (and remarkable difficulty) of taking a fresh look

The unceasing merit (and remarkable difficulty) of taking a fresh lookWe know new insights come to us when we look at things afresh. But it’s remarkably difficult to do that properly. Our minds get very comfortable with a particular way of looking at things, and of looking at people.

That’s my experience anyway…

Just before the holiday time, I had what I hope is a breakthrough insight about a family member—one who has some challenges, which are not of his making; challenges that we have been living with for the best part of a decade.

The thing is…

We’d settled into an approach based on a particular belief about what we were dealing with. In a sense, we had it handled.

Except we didn’t really…

After a particular experience observing the person concerned, and whilst reading what at first sight was an only obliquely relevant magazine article, with some of the practical issues going on literally in the background, it dawned on me that there is almost certainly an additional dimension to the situation we had completely overlooked.

One that offers some possibility of change.

It scares me, if I’m honest, just how much has to align for us to see things afresh. It could so easily not happen.

Here’s the thing…

The more committed we are to working on an issue, the more at risk we are of a kind of tunnel vision about it—missing signposts to other possibilities.

So what do you do to make sure you truly take a fresh look?

It’s much more easily said than properly done.

I do know it begins with facing the issues and going over the ground in lots of different, even deliberately off-axis ways—at the same time being both immersed and stood back; sort of seeing the situation out of the corner of your eye.

With effort and a little luck…

A breakthrough may await.

Have a great 2015.