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Argyris’ article: Good Communication that blocks learning

Benjamin Mitchell asked for my thoughts on this article at the start of the month. I’ve finally had some time to read it so I thought I’d share my thoughts. It’s much easier to blog about it than to tweet it. Mitchell is a big proponent of Arygris’ work and a lot of what Mitchell talks about resonates a lot about with my own observations in the world.

This very old article, published in 1994, still holds relevance to today’s organisations and managements. I think, if anything, it’s even more relevant as organisations look to adopt agile methods and thinking to help improve responsiveness. Argyris links back stories and observations back to some of the ideas he is well known for including the difference between single loop and double loop learning and theory in use versus theory in action (what you say versus what you really do).

What stood out for me was Argyris’ interpretation of “good communication”. He uses plenty of examples where managers focus on the “positive” to the detriment of covering over their own opinions and what they really think. These examples naturally fuel his arguments between unsustainable change and how these very actions prevent people from accomplishing any learning. For me I find it fascinating his association with “good communication” meaning communication that solely focuses on “positive” emotions.

When I think of “good communication”, I more think of effective communication. For me, this is more of the idea behind the interests-based negotiation talked about in the book Getting to Yes, or the ability to really talk about the matters that really matter like in the books, Crucial Conversations and Crucial Confrontations. Lying, or hiding what you think is not what I’d call effective, or good, communication.

I still think that Argyris’ article has value and relevance for today. I see many of the examples of behaviours he writes about in managers trying to flex authority in order to empower people. I liked his description of a CEO “lending power” to people instead of trying to question why the system prevents people from taking action on their own. My only issue with the article is that he’s examples do not resonate strongly for me for demonstrating good communication.

2 Comments

  1. I found it difficult to understand your point of view and the logic behind it. It would be helpful if you could be more specific about which examples you are referring to.

    I believe that you think that “being positive” and “lying, or hiding information” are not components of effective communication. Is that correct?

    What confuses me is whether you believe that Argyris is arguing differently (I believe that Argyris agrees with you, that focussing on being positive, lying and hiding information are ineffective). Could you clarify?

    There’s a lot more I can say once I understand your perspective more.

  2. Hi Ben,

    Thanks for your comment. I’m sorry for not being clearer. Let me try. At the start of the article, Argyris describes what he considers effective communication. From the way I read it, he refers to “focus groups & organisational surveys” as examples. I agree with Arygris these tools do not provide deep, insightful information. I do not agree with him these are effective communication tools. I think that management by walking around has more potential than the other tools if properly implemented (think gemba walks) however once again, I do not agree these are effective communication tools.

    I do, as you suggest, believe that “lying, or hiding information” are not components of effective communication. Effective problem solving means putting interests on the table. I believe Argyris thinks the same.

    What bothers me about this article is that the notion that it is “good communication” inhibits learning. I do not think that lying is good communication. I also do not think that “positive thinking at the cost of missing information” is effective communication either. Therefore, I do not agree with his examples about good communication being the constraint on learning.

    I do agree with him that there are other factors at play (such as creating safe environments, and allowing people to go beyond their current problem to explore their assumptions and beliefs) that inhibit systemic learning.

    Does this clear it up any further? Thank you for creating an opportunity for me to reflect on this more.

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