Saturday, March 14, 2009

The Comfort of the Cage

There is an oft told story (perhaps apocryphal) about how to train an elephant to stay wherever its trainer wants it to be. As the story goes, when the elephant is first born, it is chained to a stake making it impossible for the elephant to move beyond the length of the chain. After a while, the elephant learns that its efforts to break the chain are futile. It gives up the effort and begins to live within the area defined by the chain. Later in life, the elephant's keeper no longer needs a heavy chain and stake to control the giant beast. The keeper simply ties a rope to the elephant's leg, and the elephant, knowing from prior experience that it cannot break the tether, allows the rope to limit its movement. It has become comfortable within an invisible cage.

"Comfortable" may not be the right word. Maybe "resigned" is more appropriate. But, the message is the same. We all are trained to live within limits that are defined for us by others. It begins when we are young, and continues while we are learning our craft, or practicing our profession. It happens in families, and in personal relationships.

These limits, rules and boundaries are part of the culture within which we exist. Edgar Schein, an expert on the subject or organizational culture, noted that "any group with a stable membership and a history of shared learning will have developed some level of culture." (Organizational Culture and Leadership, p. 15) This shared learning can be a good thing, preserving the group's ability to remain healthy and thrive, or a bad thing causing the group to continue practices that create limits and boundaries that serve no useful purpose.

Schein says that it is the "unique function of leadership" to identify dysfunctional cultural norms or values, to manage cultural evolution, and help groups survive in a changing environment.

Regardless of whether the cultural norms are positive or negative, these norms may have become so ingrained in the group's culture that they are now base assumptions; assumptions that have become so strongly held that any other way of thinking or behaving would be inconceivable, just like the elephant in the above story. (Organizational Culture and Leadership, p. 22) In fact, organizations often find that any attempt to examine these base assumptions is destabilizing.

However, if the culture includes assumptions, behaviors, and norms that are negative or do not contribute to the survival of the organization, it may be time for a change.

One way to go about examining these base assumptions is to use a technique known as double-loop learning, or frame breaking. This process, first described by Argyris and Schon, is based on the idea that underlying assumptions, norms, and limits should be questioned through a series of loops (each response is questioned again) that expose the layers upon which we build our cultures, actions, and systems.

This process is difficult and uncomfortable for any group. A leader that digs into the base assumptions will experience considerable push back from the members of the group. Schein says that "The human mind needs cognitive stability. Therefore, any challenge to or questioning of a basic assumption will release anxiety and defensiveness." (Organizational Culture and Leadership, p. 23) However, double-loop learning offers a way for an organization to understand the foundation upon which its culture is built, and to begin the change process when those base assumptions no longer serve the needs of the group.

If our elephant applied double-loop learning to its situation from time to time, it might find that the environment had changed, and new opportunities were available that had previously seemed unthinkable.

If our elephant applied double-loop learning I wonder where the elephant might be today.