July 30, 2009

defensive reasoning

Argyris work on organizational learning really has been really useful to me. At first , I remember myself dimissing it as 'stating the obvious' . Single loop and double loop learning, yeah right. But the more I read, I find myself realising more and more how prevalent the issue of learning is in our society. In almost everyday, every news I read , stories from people I talked to , I find see in some way it relate to what Argyris refers as defensive reasoning

Whenever problem arise, people look for a solution, but at the same time they also seem to have a tendency to blame others. It usually come across in words like " I told him this and that" or "It's not responsibility to..." or " Who did this? who was responsible when the problem took place?" and so on. Then the debate comes down to who was right and who was wrong. To illustrate, a week ago, a news in the US about  a black Harvard professor being arrested by a white policeman for breaking in his (the black professor) own house. I spent some time listening to these media pundits arguing passionately defending whoever they thought no wrong. The supporter of the black professor would say "It is not breaking the law for breaking into his own house, the white police man obvious overreacted (some also implcitly suggest it is racial profiling by the policeman)" . On the other hand the supporter of the policeman would say "The police was only doing his job, he checked after a call for a suspected burglary, the black professor lost his temper and would not listen to the policeman's request to come out of the house, the balck professor is racist himself".

Well, after listening to both sides of the argument, and some reports of the actual incidents. I think it is obiviously that both parties had misbehaved. The black professor obviously overreacted (sure people would defend again saying "under the historitcal circumstances, and being suspected for no wrong doing, anyone would be overeacting"). Sure that is true but does that mean it was the "right" thing to do at the time? Does that mean, you (as the black professor) could be excused for not following the police request, and yell racial slurs to the policeman? No, I don't think so.  Similarly, did the policeman have to  arrest the black professor after confirming that he (the professor) was not the burgarlary and the situation was just a misunderstanding? No he didn't. But if he had not done so, he probably would have looked bad to the gathered people and to colleague at the police station (this I am really guessing his motive, but probably far -fetched guess) .

The point I try to make is  while each parties are busy defending themselve, and accusing others. Everyone seem to overlook the fact that perhaps both parties were responsible for the outcome of the incidenct. If this was in an organisation, the contructive approach is to engage both parties to a conversation , and talk things through. Not only to resolve the misunderstandings. But to inquire why the event happened the way it did without putting on blames. Did they way the professor reacted was perhaps due to an underlying assumption he held about the white policeman in America?  Was it okay for the white policeman to assumethe only way to deal with "disorderly behavior" was to arrest this guy and clear his name later?  After the incident both parties hopefully was already thinking about theses issues anyway.

But doing so, questioning one's own underlying assumptions, as according to Argyris , is extremely difficult because it would mean crticising self for holding those assumptions, and be in a position of blame, which is not something we like to admit to. 


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