Toward the end of my last post I referred to forces that interfere with effective team learning, the most common being defensive routines.  I return to this topic because I believe it is a significant obstacle.  On p. 251, Mr. Senge writes “Deep within the mental models of managers in many organizations is the belief that managers must know what’s going on.  It is simply unacceptable for managers to act as though they do not know what is causing a problem.  Those that reach senior positions are masters at appearing to know what is going on, and those intent on reaching such positions learn early on to develop an air of confident knowledge.”

Can you see how this can be an obstacle to team learning?  In my experience, once a person makes up their mind about something they become closed to alternative views or a better understanding of a situation.  This applies to me too.  When this happens, communication has ended and so has any opportunity for learning.  I am not saying all managers think this way.  However, I would suggest that each person reading this should examine their thinking and behavior.  Ask yourself if this describes you.

Mr. Senge continues, “Managers who internalize this mental model find themselves in one of two binds. Some actually internalize this air of confidence and simply believe that they know the answers to most important problems. But, to protect their belief, they must close themselves to alternative views and make themselves uninfluenceable.  Their bind is that to remain confident they must remain rigid.  Others believe they are expected to know what is causing important problems but, deep down, recognize the uncertainty in their solutions.  Their bind is that to maintain a facade of confidence they must obscure their ignorance.  Managers who take on the burden of having to know the answers become highly skillful in defensive routines that preserve their aura as capable decision makers by not revealing the thinking behind their decisions.”

These are strong words.  I don’t believe the author is saying managers who are in the bind described above are always ignorant.  I believe he is saying their mindset prevents them from seeing the truth in a given situation.  Have you ever seen this?  Have you ever worked with a person who does this?  What impact does this have on the team?  Do you think this has an impact on the organization’s culture?  I would say “how could it not?”  Closing oneself off to input from others blocks the flow of energy in a team that might otherwise contribute toward a shared vision.  This atmosphere is extremely damaging to a learning culture.

As bad as this atmosphere appears, the author says it is actually worse.  On p. 255 he states, “to retain their power, defensive routines must remain undiscussable…teams stay stuck in their defensive routines only when they pretend that they don’t have any defensive routines, that everything is alright, and that they can say ‘anything’.”  When a leader falls into a defensive routine it has the effect of causing others to develop their own routines.  This is one way an counterproductive  status quo gets started.

How do you break this cycle?  The greatest gift a person can have at work or away from work is a person who will speak the truth to them, no matter how hard it is to hear.  I am fortunate to have friends who listen and confront me.  I have come to appreciate and value this.  Seek wise counsel.  Schedule a regular time to get feedback from trusted sources.  Don’t resist constructive criticism even when it is hard to hear.  Be open to making a personal change.

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