LeadU presents A Tale of Three Theories

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TPOVs @F-L-O-W

A Tale of Three Theories

Despite having read much of his writing, I was unprepared for what I learned when I first saw Chris Argyris practice his approach in an informal workshop… Ostensibly an academic presentation of Argyris’s methods, it quickly evolved into a powerful demonstration of what action science practitioners call ‘reflection in action’…. Within a matter of minutes, I watched the level of alertness and ‘presentness’ of the entire group rise ten notches – thanks not so much to Argyris’s personal charisma, but to his skillful practice of drawing out… generalizations.

As the afternoon moved on, all of us were led to see (sometimes for he first time in our lives) subtle patterns of reasoning which underlay our behaviour; and how those patterns continually got us into trouble. I had never had such a dramatic demonstration of one’s mental models in action… But even more interesting, it became clear that, with proper training, I could become much more aware of my mental models and how they operated. This was exciting.

Peter Senge (1990: 182-3) talks about his own experience of Argyris as a teacher.

Theories of action: theory in use and espoused theory

Our starting point is Argyris and Schön’s (1974) argument that people have mental maps with regard to how to act in situations. This involves the way they plan, implement and review their actions. Furthermore, they assert that it is these maps that guide people’s actions rather than the theories they explicitly espouse. What is more, fewer people are aware of the maps or theories they do use (Argyris, 1980). One way of making sense of this is to say that there is split between theory and action. However, Argyris and Schön suggest that two theories of action are involved – espoused theory and theory in use. – http://www.infed.org/thinkers/argyris.htm

Adding Ego as a third theory of action.

After being inspired by reading Argris and Shoen Theory in Practice, 1974, and having spent several years arriving at Generati, I realized that while the theory in use –> the observed theory, implicity to the person behaving, and the espoused theory (what we value) –> the one that people intend, and tell to others about what lies in their assumptions and beliefs…

… A third theory that is made explicit about the person’s behavior when observed and questioned about it, which is the best description between the explanation of the behavior (we reconcile our behavior to make ourselves look good mostly!), or what I can refer to as the ego theory.

The intention, or espoused theory arises out of what we think/feel we wanted to do before we knew what we did, as our theory in use, because the ego theory is always what we have to explain when what we see we know, or intend, works or not, and how that fits with how we must shape the perception of others when there are discrepancies between the theories about our self.

Ultimately, it is the ego defense, or ego theory that creates the most difficulties and is an artifact of ego complexity. Defensive reasoning comes out of the Personality Dynamics and Developmental Dynamics, and it’s a EES [Efficient, Effective, & Sustainable] way of identifying maps that can help us guide the process of almost everything related to human interaction.

Helpful Hint: Most of the time, making explicit your tale of your theories can be a very helpful dynamic and those who are beginning the @F-L-O-W journey can easily get a lot of benefit from differentiation and integration of these theories into the interpersonal dynamics of life, work, and relationships.

Action Step: Using the ISIS [Integrated Strategic Intention System – we may need to come up with a different name] is a great way to make explicity the espoused theory. Our theory in use, almost always comes from getting high quality feedback, and sharing in the process of understanding how you are perceived by others. The reconciliation comes in the ego theory of our selves and how that creates maturity over time.



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We hope you pick up valuable insights, ideas, and tools during this process, which you can use for your own development as well as your work and leadership with others.

You, Me, and We @F-L-O-W

Mike R. Jay is a developmentalist utilizing consulting, coaching, mentoring and advising as methods to offer developmental scaffolding for aspiring leaders who are interested in being, doing, having, becoming, and contributing… to helping people have lives.

Mike R. Jay
Leadership University


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