Bad news isn’t wine. It doesn’t improve with age. – Colin Powell
Argyris (1977) explores the question of why bad news doesn’t make it to the top of organizations – and comes to the conclusion that the problem is that it’s minimized at each stage. What starts off at the front line as a scary monster is restated as a mild problem by middle management and becomes a small issue by the time it’s presented to senior management.
The issue is that no one wants to be the bearer of bad news (remember the shoot the messenger principle) and so you’re asked for more information, more justification, to explain what’s going on. As a result by the time you know what’s really going on it’s too late to do anything about it.
This is something I hadn’t really realized about the news until recently. By the time something gets on the news it’s all gone horribly wrong. You don’t get a news item talking about how a government department comfortably avoided disaster. That’s not news. You get the failures, the shambles, the disasters. And you get a side order of blame, shame and excuses.
Now, you might argue that this is not the way things should be. Argyris argues instead that we should consider this as normal behaviour. These are human games that we play in societies and it’s as natural as anything else. And that’s why top leaders don’t trust anything their subordinates say because they know the truth is being hidden from them. Good leaders go and see for themselves rather than relying on reports and briefings. If you run a hospital, for example, you need to walk the wards to see what’s going on and what people really experience. Both staff and patients.
And this is where double loop learning comes in. If you have a heating system that comes on and turns off when the heating reaches a certain point you have a single loop learning process. If the heating had the ability to question whether its setting was the right one then you have double loop learning. In an organisation this means that you are doing single loop learning if you do your job. If you ask yourself what job you should be doing then you’re doing double loop learning.
Much of the time in organisations it’s not that people don’t want to hear bad news – it’s that they are worried about what pointing it out will do to their careers and relationships. That’s why it’s easier for an external consultant to come in and talk about what they see. It’s their job to be honest, in theory, and tell it like it is.
Argyris’s paper has a number of other ideas and I should really pull out a few more of them in the next post. So I’ll do that next.
Argyris C, 1977, “Double loop learning in organizations”, Harvard Business Review.