Last week my aunt sent out one of those cute e-mails that I have to admit I don’t usually read, but the title snagged me. You know the one – “what love means to 4-8 year olds.” The first few were cute and then one caught my eye. A four year old named Lauren said, “I know my older sister loves me because she gives me all her old clothes and has to go out and buy new ones.” Life is so wonderful and innocent when you are four - Lauren hasn’t developed a paradigm for judging actions, yet.
Paradigms. I know you’ve heard of “paradigms,” but I wonder if you’ve ever given them much thought. I think effective leaders should understand how paradigms impact individual and organizational decision-making. It wasn’t until I read The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge that I really thought about and understood them. Now, I think about them all the time.
Paradigms in individuals are the mental models we have developed over the years to help us make judgments and take action. In organizations, paradigms are the procedures and practices people have developed over time to achieve the mission of the organization. In this post I’m going to write about understanding paradigms in individuals and in my next Blog post (Part 2), I’ll write about paradigms in organizations.
Personal Paradigms Drive Our Actions. Most adults have developed thousands of paradigms over many years of life experiences. Paradigms are the mental models or steps our brains go through before and during the times we take action. Some paradigms are simple like when we go grocery shopping. Some are more complicated like when we decide to take a trip somewhere we’ve never been. As we all know, too, when other people are connected to our paradigm, the more complicated it gets. And, for many of us, the more time goes by the more solidified and inflexible our paradigms become. (For example, when you grocery shop do you go to the same store and do you go down the aisles in the same direction all the time? This is a paradigm.)
Judgmental Paradigms – A Leadership Challenge. If you are in a leadership position, it is important to understand how humans develop their paradigms and then how we use them to form opinions about other people and then take action. Since we all do it, becoming aware of how we do it can help us solve problems more effectively.
To help us explore paradigms, I’d like to use the Ladder of Inference developed by Chris Argyris. I have found it very helpful in understanding how we form beliefs, judge other people’s actions, and then act in certain ways. Before looking at the Ladder’s steps, I’d like to share with you a paradigm I encountered with a fellow adjunct faculty member a few years ago. The other instructor shared his story with me and it went something like this:
“During class I like to make eye contact with the students. It helps me know they are connected to what we’re talking about. I had a younger student in class who was always typing on his computer and not making eye contact very often. Since I had read and been told that his generation likes to stay connected with friends all the time, I assumed he was instant-messaging, tweeting, or commenting on his Facebook page. I concluded this behavior was causing him to disengage in class. I believed anyone else typing on a laptop was also disengaging and more interested in social networking. I then banned all students from typing on their laptop during class. I learned after announcing the ban that night that the student was simply typing notes into his computer. I was a little embarrassed and then lifted the “ban” and said it was okay for students to type notes.”
This teacher changed his paradigm, something we all hope we would do. In the Exhibit below, I have listed the seven (7) steps Chris Argyris says we all go through as we construct our paradigms. I have laid-out the instructor’s story next to each step to make the process easier to understand.
It is interesting to think about the seven rungs or steps of the Inference Ladder when you study how you personally approach a decision, especially a more complicated one that involves a connection to other people. However, you can start out thinking about it when you make less complicated decisions – like when you decide to vote next month.
The key points I try to always remember from the Argyris’ Ladder are these:
- From all the observable data available to us at any point in time, we make a choice as to what information or data we want to use – leaving other data along the side of the road. Since this choice is often made based on previously formed beliefs and assumptions, we tend to select data that fit those beliefs. As a result, quite often we end-up missing important information.
- A wonderful trait of being from the human species is that we can add meaning to things and we do this all the time. The meaning we add is based on personal experience and cultural influences. Often the meanings we add are valuable and helpful. Sometimes the meanings we add lead us to the wrong conclusion and a poor decision.
- Most of the time we all have to make “assumptions” because there are just too many variables out there. We need to remember that our assumptions are going to influence our conclusions. If the decision we are making is significant, we should do our best to list and test our assumptions. Poor assumptions usually lead to poor decisions.
- When we draw conclusions, we naturally create new beliefs about the world. These beliefs then impact the data we choose next time and the decisions we make in the future. Argyris refers to this as a “Reflexive Loop”. A deeper lesson is to always pay attention to those times when we form beliefs about a group of people based on a single interaction with one person. This behavior may include generalizing, labeling, stereotyping, or just plain prejudice.
If you would like to learn more about the Ladder, I think this three minute video by Ed Muzio will give you additional insights.
Now that we have a better understanding for how we form paradigms, in my next Blog post I’ll explore how you can use this knowledge to more effectively lead others, teams, and organizations.