Thursday, December 12, 2013

Why Smart People End Up in the Same Frustrating Loops

What can a thermostat tell you about your relationships and your projects and to-do list and why they sometimes spiral into the same lame problem cycles over and over (and over!) again?

Teaching Smart People, by Chris Argyris, written for managers in large commercial organizations sheds some light on how the participants in any project or relationship focus enormous amounts of energy in blaming, leaving unexamined their own culpability in creating problems. Consequently, they do not learn from their mistakes, even though failure is probably the best teacher of all. And the real surprise: it's the "smartest" people with the hardest time learning.

Why are the swiftest minds the most hard headed? Two reasons: First, being smart--and specifically successful--these people are great at navigating what Argyris calls "single loop" problems. Like a thermostat which kicks on the heat when the temperature gets below 68 degrees, these people can easily navigate well-defined external variables. In fact, it's this ability which makes them successful in the eyes of the larger world. (Get good grades. Navigate an interview. Satisfy clients and complete contracts. Check, check, and check.) However, when it comes to more complicated problems--"double loop" situations--these  successful people become stuck. They don't respond to more complex problems with the proper amount of sophistication: they don't ask questions beyond the scope of the task at hand, don't reexamine the larger goals and procedures involved in successfully completing these more complicated projects, and--especially--their part in producing the problem at hand.

The second reason is purely psychological: being smart and successful, these individuals hate to be wrong. Their fear of failure and embarrassment in particular causes them to find outside factors to blame when things go wrong. Instead of looking at their place in contributing to the problem--which is to admit some degree of culpability--they embark on a witch hunt, with all the nasty emotional and relationship-damaging results that come with blame seeking.

These two factors, not examining the larger goal of a project/relationship and one's place in it, and the defensive hunt for blame, help explain why smart people in particular .often stink at learning from their mistakes. And though Argyris created this framework for organizational and managerial decisions, it has much to say about interpersonal relationships and personal projects which often lead to frustration.

Have you ever been involved in either of the following situation? You set up a worthwhile personal goal, perhaps learning French, losing weight, cleaning out the garage. And being a smart person, you break it down into manageable bites and you start hacking away. For a while you maintain your goal. But a week or two later you are angry and embarrassed with yourself when you try to respond with a verb you meant to study and can't remember, or you step on the scale, or see the garage is now overflowing with junk?  

How about this scenario: You are in the middle of a heated argument with your partner, friend, or family member, and you realize you have been here before. And you're angry and distressed. Not sure about this one? A sure sign is you used phrases like "you always" or "you never."

Another of the author's coinages, "the "doom zoom" and "doom loop" are particularly relevant to interpersonal relationships and help explain why our failures become so emotionally distressing. The consultants he interviewed said that when projects went awry, they would enter a doom loop and fall into a mood of deep despair over the failure or the lack of positive feedback from their manager. And this process was not slow; it was a zoom--rapid, violent, and destructive. And here’s another kicker: learning—in other words, changing your responses to these situations—is often seen as a motivational issue. In your heart you know it’s your fault for not being motivated enough but outwardly you seek for the usual suspects to blame. Neither of these responses is effective at teaching you how to avoid these types of problems in the future.


What is the solution to the doom loop/zoom and repeating these same cycles? Argyris says that it’s basically the same as how a business conducts a “strategic” analysis, which we’ll walk through next post.

My annotation for this article is available here.

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