Putting Into Practice What We Preach

From my column in this month’s (December 2018) Chief Learning Officer magazine.


In the practice of leadership and among firms there have been many books and much talk about various leadership styles, including authentic, collaborative or even inspirational leadership to name a few. All these make sense and have value as frameworks to define and develop one’s leadership approach, so I am going to introduce a simple and practical way that I think about leadership. Simply put, are we really doing what we say?

In their seminal 1974 book, “Theory in Practice: Increasing Professional Effectiveness” Chris Argyris and Donald Schön define this relationship as “theories of action” comprised of two components: espoused theory and theory-in-use. Essentially, their work affirms that espoused theory is the belief one’s intended behavior is based on, while theory-in-use is the actual action employed. In both cases the litmus test of effectiveness is evaluated based on the achievement of the desired outcomes. Since there is potential for incongruence between one’s espoused theory and theory-in-use, raising one’s self-awareness to bridge this potential gap is key to efficacy and self-correction.

I think about Argyris and Schön’s theory and its contribution to organizational practice in three ways: culturally, behaviorally and tactically. First, every organization has a culture, whether explicitly or implicitly defined, that can include several elements such as vision, mission and values. As defined by Boris Groysberg, Jeremiah Lee, Jesse Price and J. Yo-Jud Cheng in their Harvard Business Review 2018 article, “The Leader’s Guide to Corporate Culture,” culture is the “tacit social order of an organization” that “defines what is encouraged, discouraged, accepted or rejected within a group.” As such, values and vision statements are words that are designed to be the embodiment of the organization thereby shaping leadership and employee behavior. These reside on websites, in recruiting materials and are used during investor day presentations to, in large part, set the standard for what the organization aspires to be. In this way, the espoused theory of an organization resides in these internally and externally facing declarations.

Next, take the actual behavior that an organization embodies. To what extent do these actions align with the advocated corporate values? It is often cited that the “tone at the top” of a firm has the greatest impact on positive or negative organizational behavior. Take the origins of this expression, which are rooted in the accounting field’s best practices with the belief that leadership’s attitude toward ethical and rigorous financial practices contributes to corporate culture. In our recent history, when there was tone deafness by leadership toward this objective, firms such as Enron, Tyco and Adelphia Cable ended up in perilous situations, to name a few who no longer exist as trusted name brands.

Third, in the case of Adelphia I had direct experience back in the early 2000s when I was doing consulting work at the former headquarters in Coudersport, Pennsylvania. The short version of the story is that due to the misuse of corporate funds by the founding family, the company could not repay a significant amount of debt and was forced into bankruptcy. As a result, the firm was broken into pieces, purchased by other cable operators and ceased to exist in a short period of time.

While working there, I remember seeing corporate values and vision statements on the walls; so, where was the breakdown in what was espoused versus carried out in practice? I’m not sure I’ll ever know the answer to that question, but what became apparent was the devastation to those remaining employees and the secondary effects on the townspeople who owned restaurants, hotels and other businesses that used to benefit from bustling crowds. I was struck by the shopkeepers screening me by asking if I was one of the “good guys,” there to fix the business and, in turn, help them, or one of the “bad guys,” there to shut them down.

In sum, whether the congruence of Argyris and Schön’s theories of action are manifested through firm culture, values or the tactical behaviors of leaders doesn’t really matter. In the end, the simple test for leaders is to ensure that the ratio of what we say and then do is in alignment.

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