Mark Needham

Thoughts on Software Development

Espoused theory, theory in action & hypocrisy

with 4 comments

Earlier in the year I wrote about Chris Argyris’ espoused theory and theory in action and one of the interesting aspects to it which I hadn’t previously considered is how we treat people when their espoused theory and theory in action don’t match.

My tendency is to think that these people are hypocrites but Benjamin Mitchell pointed out in a conversation on twitter that it’s not really helpful to think that way:


I find it hard to accept that other’s can’t see the ‘obvious’ gap I can between what they say and what they do (cf fund. attribution error)


@benjaminm I have the tendency to believe they are a hypocrite but I think it’s just an espoused theory/theory in action gap


@markhneedham I think that’s the challenge I’m finding: allowing that people have a gap they are blind to, and not punishing them for it

A typical example where I’ve seen this happen is where someone (we’ll call them person A) teaches a group of people how to give effective feedback, probably by following some of the ideas from Pat Kua’s ‘Tightening the feedback loop‘ presentation.

The implicit assumption in the people being taught is that since person A taught them how to give feedback, person A should be able to give feedback perfectly every time.

Almost inevitably that tends not to be the case and there will be a time when person A ends up giving feedback which isn’t effective and is more a reflection of them than the person they’re supposedly trying to help!

If person A is working in a reflective mindset then hopefully they’ll realise their mistake and work on closing the gap between their espoused theory and theory in action.

If that doesn’t seem to be happening then we need to describe our observations to person A, discuss those observations and help person A improve.

A substantial part of William Noonan’s ‘Discussing the Undiscussable‘ is devoted to coming up with ways that we can deal with these conversations more effectively.

The learning from this for me is that just because someone teaches you something or talks about a topic very passionately that doesn’t mean that they’ve have to be perfect at it!

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Written by Mark Needham

February 23rd, 2011 at 1:34 am

Posted in Communication

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