Thursday, December 20, 2012

Minding the Gap

While in London and riding the “tube”, I became intrigued with the signs posted around the stations warning patrons to “mind the gap”. I even took pictures because it so reminded me of what I do for a living. I help people to “mind the gap.” It has become my consulting and coaching signature….even my living motto. I believe and like many of you, have observed that most organizations, groups, and individuals have two sets of values….the “espoused values” and the “values in action.”  Sometimes the gap does not impact or hurt anyone and at other times, it is absolutely mystifying and scary (glaring example being the recent Petraeus “gap” or the notorious Enron “gap”). Many unresolvable conflicts occur because one group thinks “the espoused values” are alive and well even while another group sees a glaring gap between values and behavior. I think that “minding the gap” is one of the hardest challenges that organizations, groups, and individuals face since ignoring that a gap exists can easily corrupt trust building as well as delay or prevent adaptation to a new reality.

I became aware of “the gap” when I first read Chris Argyris’ classic article, “Teaching Smart People to Learn.” Argyris points out that “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.” However, if we were to question individuals about their behavior, they would provide us with an espoused theory of action or what I call espoused values driving their actions. This is because we are not even aware of the defensive reasoning we use to explain our behavior especially when encountering a threatening or embarrassing situation where we may perceive ourselves as vulnerable. Uncovering our competing commitment to not look foolish, stupid, incompetent….the list of negatives goes  on… a way to more adeptly align our valuesin action with our espoused values especially when our actions are based on flawed assumptions.

I believe this is a personal journey and we often need support to examine our thinking and question the assumptions we have about ourselves. This is hard work and not for those who lack courage.

 I recently had a client who was courageous enough to examine his own thinking about himself after his 360 feedback revealed a significant gap between how he saw himself and how his supervisor, peers, and direct reports saw him. His raters saw him as a very competent, positively influencing, and adaptable leader but the individual saw himself in a totally differently light....just the opposite. Consequently, he often turned down roles that he assumed might make him look incompetent or not very able. He used controlling strategies that he thought would not allow him to be vulnerable to mistakes and criticism. Once we investigated his defensive reasoning and the competing commitments contributing to this reasoning, he was able to begin to explore how he could take this new feedback to become an even better change leader.

"Minding the gap” is the hero’s journey re-told over and over again in our myths and stories. It is an ongoing developmental experience…a life-long learning that helps us to become our more authentic selves and better support any group or organization where we work, volunteer, or play. However, we must be open to feedback, willing to challenge ourselves to change behaviors that are getting in the way, and have the support that is needed to sustain our change in behavior. What is the gap between your espoused values and values in action? Are you willing to “mind this gap” and if so, how?