May 28, 2022 7 min read

Learning to Learn - Why Professionals Struggle with this Meta Skill

Elsewhere, I have argued the importance of self-development and on-going learning of managers and leaders. A major impediment to this effort is what Chris Argyris calls defensive reasoning routines.

In his 1991 HBR article Teaching Smart People How to Learn, he outlines some of the primary reasons why highly skilled and educated professionals struggle with learning.

Theories of actions

One of the core tenets of his work along with Donald Schon is the concept of theories of action:

It is impossible to reason anew in every situation. If we had to think through all the possible responses every time someone asked, “How are you?” the world would pass us by.

Therefore, everyone develops a theory of action-a set of rules that individuals use to design and implement their own behavior as well as to understand the behavior of others.

Usually, these theories of actions become so taken for granted that people don’t even realize they are using them.

– Chris Argyris in Teaching Smart People How to Learn

What we claim vs what we actually do

What makes this interesting and insidious is that we all have two versions, the one we claim to be using and the one we actually use. He calls these the espoused theory of action vs the theory-in-use.

One of the paradoxes of human behavior, however, is that the master pro- gram people actually use is rarely the one they think they use. Ask people in an interview or questionnaire to articulate the rules they use to govern their actions, and they will give you what I call their “espoused” theory of action.

But observe these same people’s behavior, and you will quickly see that this espoused theory has very little to do with how they actually behave.

When you observe people’s behavior and try to come up with rules that would make sense of it, you discover a very different theory of action-what I call the individual’s “theory-in-use.’’

Put simply, people consistently act inconsistently, unaware of the contradiction between their espoused theory and their theory-in-use, between the way they think they are acting and the way they really act.

– Chris Argyris in Teaching Smart People How to Learn

The reason why we have two different versions is that the theory-in-use makes sense given how the situation “looks” to us. It looks that way because of underlying values that we all carry.

Most theories-in-use rest on the same set of governing values. There seems to be a universal human tendency to design one’s actions consistently according to four basic values:

1. To remain in unilateral control;
2. To maximize “winning” and minimize “losing”;
3. To suppress negative feelings; and
4. To be as “rational” as possible-by which people mean defining clear objectives and evaluating their behavior in terms of whether or not they have achieved them.

The purpose of all these values is to avoid embarrassment or threat, feeling vulnerable or incompetent. In this respect, the master program that most people use is profoundly defensive. Defensive reasoning encourages individuals to keep private the
premises, inferences, and conclusions that shape their behavior and to avoid testing them in a truly independent, objective fashion.

– Chris Argyris in Teaching Smart People How to Learn

Defensive behavior in professionals

He goes on to highlight how highly educated professionals are most susceptible to this kind of defensive behavior for several reasons:

  • Most of them have never experienced failure so far leading up to their current role and as a result do not know how to deal with it effectively. Their defensive routines get automatically activated as they never had a chance to develop a muscle for dealing with failure and its associated learnings. (This is equally applicable for top performers rising up through the organization until they run into a challenging role.)
  • They have an unrealistically high ideal of performance for themselves.
  • They make the mistake of comparing themselves to people much further down in their career, thus setting unrealistic expectations.
  • The high ideal of performance comes packaged with a high fear of failure and associated shame and guilt feelings that go with it.
  • They fear not just failure itself but they also “fear the fear of failure itself”.

Extremely brittle personalities

All these behaviors together conspire to form what Argyris calls a formidable predisposition against learning.

And while on their own they might not directly impede our work, such an implicit unwillingness to learn can seriously hamper our future prospects. It leads to professionals developing what he calls extremely brittle personalities.

Billy Beane featured in the Michael Lewis book and the movie Moneyball is a classic example of such brittleness. Carol Dweck in Mindset writes:

As Michael Lewis tells us in Moneyball, by the time Beane was a sophomore in high school, he was the highest scorer on the basketball team, the quarterback of the football team, and the best hitter on the baseball team, batting .500 in one of the toughest leagues in the country. His talent was real enough.

But the minute things went wrong, Beane searched for something to break. “It wasn’t merely that he didn’t like to fail; it was as if he didn’t know how to fail.”

As he moved up in baseball from the minor leagues to the majors, things got worse and worse. Each at-bat became a nightmare, another opportunity for humiliation, and with every botched at-bat, he went to pieces. As one scout said, “Billy was of the opinion that he should never make an out.” […]

Did Beane try to fix his problems in constructive ways? No, of course not, because this is a story of the fixed
mindset. Natural talent should not need effort. Effort is for the others, the less endowed. Natural talent does not ask for help. It is an admission of weakness. In short, the natural does not analyze his deficiencies and coach or practice them away. The very idea of deficiencies is terrifying.

Being so imbued with the fixed mindset, Beane was trapped. Trapped by his huge talent. Beane the player never recovered from the fixed mindset, but Beane the incredibly successful major-league executive did. How did this happen?

There was another player who lived and played side by side with Beane in the minors and in the majors, Lenny Dykstra. Dykstra did not have a fraction of Beane’s physical endowment or “natural ability,” but Beane watched him in awe. As Beane later described, “He had no concept of failure. . . . And I was the opposite.”

Beane continues, “I started to get a sense of what a baseball player was and I could see it wasn’t me. It was Lenny.”

– Carol Dweck in Mindset

The typical ways organizations go about fixing learning is by focussing on the individual’s attitudes, commitment or motivation. There might also be system wide initiatives to incorporate learning into the company’s culture.

Per Argyris this is never enough to effect real change because we are still locked into our defensive reasoning routines.

Problem solving is not always learning

He highlights the difference between plain old problem-solving as opposed to learning that actually challenges us. Ongoing continuous learning requires reflection on our part and ownership of our role in creating the problem.

[M]ost people define learning too narrowly as mere “problem solving,” so they focus on identifying and correcting errors in the external environment. Solving problems is important. But if learning is to persist, managers and employees must also look inward.

They need to reflect critically on their own behavior, identify the ways they often inadvertently contribute to the organization’s problems, and then change how they act.

In particular, they must learn how the very way they go about defining and solving problems can be a source of problems in its own right.

– Chris Argyris in Teaching Smart People How to Learn


Argyris recommends some simple solutions.

The first step is for managers themselves to examine the gap between their own espoused theories and their actual theories-in-use. Are they really walking the talk? Are their actions consistent with their espoused theories? This has a trickle down effect in the organization.

And this has to start with the senior management team. It’s harder and almost impossible for a middle manager to pull this off, if the senior team is still in the midst of their own defensive routines.

No plan survives first contact with the enemy.

- Von Clausewitz

His second recommendation is for training programs to be directly connected to actual business problems with real consequences so managers can see the result of their changes. It is too common for the learning in simulated classroom situations to never materialize in real-time situations.

His third recommendation is his well-known and highly effective left-hand column exercise. You divide the page into two columns. In the right column you write a small case study which describes the situation like an upcoming meeting and how it might play out. In the left column you describe the things you actually want to say but are too afraid to do so. Then you go over these as an open discussion with the parties involved.

This exercise highlights the role we ourselves play in creating the very problem we are trying to solve. This does not come naturally to us as our natural defensive routines prevent us from implicating ourselves and thus hiding the role we are playing.

In effect, the case study exercise legitimizes talking about issues that people have never been able to address before. Such a discussion can be emotional- even painful.

But for managers with the courage to persist, the payoff is great: management teams and entire organizations work more openly and more effectively and have greater options for behaving flexibly and adapting to particular situations.

When senior managers are trained in new reasoning skills, they can have a big impact on the performance of the entire organization-even when other employees are still reasoning defensively.

– Chris Argyris in Teaching Smart People How to Learn

Learning to learn as a meta-skill

Almost every modern organization endorses the importance of learning. Coupled with that, top organizations supposedly hire only the smartest people. And yet, paradoxically, learning is still one of the biggest challenges companies face especially in knowledge work.

Hidden defensive routines are one reason why this is so. Managers and leaders need to be aware of these insidious saboteurs and train themselves and their teams to become better learners.

They are not just solving problems but developing a far deeper and more textured understanding of their role as members of the organization. They are laying the groundwork for continuous improvement that is truly continuous. They are learning how to learn.

– Chris Argyris in Teaching Smart People How to Learn

Learning to learn is a meta-skill that can accelerate the process of self-development. It's the ultimate insurance policy against constant change and uncertainty, and something managers and leaders cannot afford to ignore.

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Sheril Mathews
I am an executive/leadership coach. Before LS, I worked for 20 years in corporate America in various technical & leadership roles. Have feedback? You can reach me at
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