September 21, 2017

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.