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The Next Faithful Step

Blame Prevents Learning

Scott Cormode, Fuller Seminary

The renowned Harvard scholar Chris Argyris did an important study of people who (like ministers) spend most of their days helping other people grow and change. He looked at them as models for people who work in a range of professions—such as ministers, doctors, and corporate managers. These professionals, he discovered, had a hard time taking the next step toward maturity. Let me explain his study in some detail because, in my experience working with ministers and ministerial students, it applies directly to pastors. Indeed, Argyris focused on the very obstacle that makes it so difficult for pastors to take the next faithful step.

Over the course of fifteen years, Argyris conducted in-depth studies of management professionals. Almost all of the professionals had masters degrees from top universities and were “highly satisfied” with their work. They were, in short, the most proficient members of their profession. He asked them about learning—that is, about how they helped organizations get better and about how they themselves improved. He found an interesting pattern that recurred throughout the years. “As long as efforts at learning and change focused on external factors,” Argyris reported, “the professionals were enthusiastic participants” in the study. They liked being a part of what is called in the parlance of their profession, “continuous improvement”—so long as it was other people who had to change. “Yet the moment the quest for continuous improvement turned to the professionals’ own performance something went wrong.” They balked as soon as Argyris asked them how they needed to change. “It wasn’t a matter of bad attitude.” The professionals were, in principle, committed to improvement. They just weren’t comfortable describing their own short-comings. “What happened? The professionals began to feel embarrassed. They were threatened [and started to] react defensively.” They did not want to talk about specific ways that they themselves could improve because it required them to admit their weaknesses. They did not want to acknowledge that they had failings because they were afraid they might look bad. So they did what people have done since Eve got caught in the Garden. “They projected the blame for any problems away from themselves and onto what they said were unclear goals, insensitive and unfair leaders, and stupid clients.” Argyris regularly met competent and celebrated professionals who said to him, “It’s not my fault.” He summarized this avoidance behavior by saying that “they looked entirely outside themselves.” When confronted with a less-than-perfect performance, these cream-of-the-crop leaders “asserted that they were helpless to act differently—not because of any limitations of their own but because of the limitations of others.” They could not learn from their mistakes because they were unwilling to acknowledge that they had done anything wrong in the first place.1

We’ve all met people who could not take responsibility for their own failings; and we’ve all been that person. I know I have. I remember teaching a seminar for pastors and other leaders. I was using a case study that I have taught perhaps a hundred times. But this group was not reacting to it the way other groups had. Usually the case sparks intense conversation. This time the group seemed, well, a bit bored, like they had more important things to do. I had heard good things about this group from the person who had invited me. She said these were the most theologically-reflective pastors in her region. And they found my case boring. So what did I do? I mustered my years of experience teaching and turned it against them. I decided to blame them. “After all,” I reasoned silently, “every other group thought this stuff was great. Something must be wrong with these people. So I guess I’ll just get through this without embarrassing myself. But, my goodness, these people are disengaged.” I was embarrassed. Here, I’d been invited to speak to this cream-of-the-crop group of pastors. And they could barely muster enough interest to be polite. So, instead of using my experience to understand them, I used it to write them off—anything to avoid the conclusion that I was at fault.

The saddest part of the example was the missed opportunity. I found out later what had happened. Just before I arrived, they had a brief go-around-the-room-and-check-in time. And one of the pastors dropped a bombshell. She said, “I think I might be gay. I’ve wondered about this for a long time. Last week, I went out on a date with another woman and I’d like to see her again. I haven’t told anyone else this before. My congregation does not know. My friends and family do not know. Nobody. You are the first ones and I need your support.” And then I walked in and tried to get their attention. In retrospect, I realize that they obviously were not bored. They were distracted—and rightly so.  Homosexuality was a controversial issue in this group and no one was sure the best way to respond. Sure they were distracted. My abstract case study could not – and should not – compete with the real life situation playing out in their midst. But here’s the sad part. I never stopped to listen long enough to know what was really happening. When things did not go the way I wanted them to go, I assumed that it was all about me and became defensive. They did not respond the way I wanted them to respond, so I wrote them off. I missed an opportunity to learn from the situation because I assumed that I was there to teach.  I blamed them and that stopped the learning cold.

1 Argyris, “Teaching Smart People How to Learn,” Harvard Business Review(May-June 1991) 6, 7.