Posted by: Matthew Molinari | January 24, 2011

Teaching Smart People How to Learn (Blog #1)

Who would have thought that teaching the smartest, most accomplished, employees would be a difficult task for management? Chris Argyris, author of “Teaching Smart People How to Learn”, would argue that helping these highly qualified and super-driven employees actually becomes more difficult because of their past. I’m not 100% convinced by his argument but it is certainly intriguing.

The basis for the argument is that the smartest employees have consistently been the most successful and are so unfamiliar with failure that they become unable to accept criticism. I tend to think that, regardless of their history, almost all employees shy away from negative comments in many of the same ways. However, I don’t believe that the type of employee really matters to the overall theme of the article.

Regardless of whether an employee has had 1,000 failures or none, I think a lot of the same reactions to critique exist. In my experience, a lot of the reaction to criticism is that the employee takes it personally. Many employees are unable to accept a comment on a business failure as anything but a personal attack when in fact it is anything but that. Assuming there is no ulterior motive, pointing out a less than perfect performance, or a complete failure for that matter, should be taken as a learning experience.

I do wonder how often in business people become motivated by not failing and remaining with the “pack” rather than by trying something new and possibly coming up short. It seems like the typical performance review actually reinforces this mentality as does upper management setting poor examples. Starting from the top of the company, the employees need to see that dissent is not bad as long as it comes with data and analysis to back it up. This allows for open and honest criticism based on actual events rather than addressing problems based on comments that can be conceived as personal attacks which can make employees and management retreat and close the lines of communication.

I thought Argyris made a great point about trying to prevent your employees from becoming complainers without stopping their complaints. The whole point is to create an atmosphere in which employees can feel free to express their concerns and ideas when there is an issue so that you can in turn critique the employee openly without fear of them shutting down.

 To do this, the conversation needs to be based on data that shows all the different factors that contribute to the issue at hand. This way, everyone is able to see how they added or took away (or did both) from the company goals and that employees and management are being held to the same standards. The first step to opening communication needs to be teaching people to see evaluation as a way to become a more integral part of the company rather than the first step to getting them out the door.


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