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Team Learning: Looking Beyond Yourself (PART 6 of Six)

April 8, 2010

Updated December 2, 2014

Team learning builds on the discipline of personal mastery. It’s a process that encompasses aligning and developing the capacity of a team to achieve the goals that its members truly want. While individual learning at one level is important, it’s irrelevant at another level. Individuals may learn but the organization as a whole does not. There is no organizational learning. Teams become, therefore, the essential ingredient for learning, a “microcosm” for learning as Peter Senge calls it.

There are three key components of team learning:

1. Teams must probe and explore complex issues, drawing on the talents, knowledge and experiences of one another.

2. They must work in concert, coordinating their efforts and communicating openly and closely. Trust is essential since members must be able to rely on one another.

3. Teams must interact with each other so that they can share what they learn. Senge created the expression Nested Teams as a way to express this interaction. Just as there must be interdependency within a team, so too must there be interdependency among teams in an organization.

Team learning must therefore be seen as being a collective discipline. To say that ‘I’ as an individual am mastering team learning is irrelevant. Team learning involves mastering the two primary ways that teams communicate: dialogue and discussion. By dialogue, Senge means deep listening and the free exploration of ideas. (Stephen Covey used the expression emphathic listening). Discussion, on the other hand, refers to searching for the best view to support decisions once all views have all been presented.

For a team to grow and develop, and to be effective, it’s necessary that conflict be present. This notion may no doubt surprise some people, but unless a team’s members disagree at times, the team will not learn. To think creatively, there must be the free flow of conflicting ideas.

Of course, the team must know how to use disagreements productively. Conflict becomes then a part of the continuing dialogue among the team’s members. Senge explains: “…the difference between great teams and mediocre teams lies in how they face conflict and deal with the defensiveness that invariably surrounds conflict.”

The issue of when and how to use conflict productively is one that escapes most organizations. The consequence is the regular use of defensive routines. To admit that one doesn’t know the answer to a question or problem is to reveal one’s supposed incompetence. This has particular applications to managers because they’re expected to know everything that is going on in the organization. This becomes part of managers’ mental models. Senge states: “Those that reach senior positions are masters at appearing to know what is going on, and those intent on reaching such positions learn early on to develop an air of confident knowledge.”

When managers internalize this mental model, they create two problems. First, to maintain the belief that they have the answers they must shut themselves off from inquiry from their subordinates. They refuse to consider alternative views, especially if they appear provocative.

The second problem they create for themselves is that they sustain their ignorance. To keep up the facade they become very skilled at being defensive. After all, they wish to be seen as being effective decision makers.

Through his work, Chris Argyris ( one of Senge’s mentors) has found that such defensive behavior becomes an ingrained part of an organization’s culture. As he states: “We are the carriers of defensive routines, and organizations are the hosts. Once organizations have been infected, they too become carriers.”

Organizational learning is obviously severely impeded in such a culture. This is underscored especially when teams engage in defensive routines, which block their energy and prevent them from working towards their shared visions.

The more that defensive routines take root in a team, and more broadly the organization, the more they hide the underlying problems. And in turn, the less effectively these problems are addressed, the worse the problems become. As Argyris puts it: “…defensive routines are ‘self-sealing’ * they obscure their own existence.”

All is not lost, however. A team that is committed to the truth will find ways to expose and address its defensiveness. The same applies to a manager who has the courage to self-disclose and examine his mental models to determine where defensiveness may be hidden. This in turn creates energy and the willingness to explore new ideas. Openness and dialogue then become the norm in the organization.

If dialogue articulates a unique vision of team learning,
reflection and inquiry skills may prove essential to realizing that vision.

(Peter Senge)

A Final Note
Senge notes that the five disciplines may also be called the leadership disciplines. As he asserts: “Those who excel in these areas will be the natural leaders of learning organizations….It is impossible to reduce natural leadership to a set of skills or competencies. Ultimately, people follow people who believe in something and have the abilities to achieve results in the service of those beliefs….Who are the natural leaders of learning organizations? They are the learners.”

When Senge wrote The Fifth Discipline his intention was to portray what a learning organization could look like and how it could be created. He did not set out to convince people they should build a learning organization. By presenting this concept to people, he is offering them a choice. He states, however, “The choice, as is always the case, is yours.”

The journey in between what you once were and who you are now becoming is where the dance of life really takes place.

– Barbara DeAngelis

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