Preventing Knee-Jerk Reactions

At times, every leader will display negative personality traits or knee-jerk reactions that don’t seem to fit with the rest of their leadership package. They demonstrate excellent leadership skills 95-99% of the time but once in a great while they have an unpredicted outburst or go silent or won’t face a problem or… They have tried to modify their behavior but that doesn’t solve the spontaneous unexpected reaction they have to some isolated situations.

When a leader simply tries to modify a behavior (theirs or a teammate’s) and does not get to the root cause underlying the behavior it is like pushing a beach ball under water. The moment they release their grip the ball (the behavior) will pop to the surface. This is most often seen at moments of stress. Wise leaders use behavior patterns to indicate character or value issues that need to be corrected.

In “Teaching Smart People How to Learn” from the Harvard Business Review (May-June 1991) Chris Argyris coined the terms “Single Loop Learning” and “Double Loop Learning.” He used the term to differentiate learning that solves an immediate problem (“Single-Loop Learning”) from learning that addresses the root causes of problems (“Double-Loop Learning”). The single loop tends to be the easy one where leaders simply teach themselves or their teammate how to modify behavior i.e. stopping their angry outbursts, but the second loop forces the person to deal with the anger that generated the outburst. The second loop around the issue is more difficult but is essential to truly solve the problem. Wise leaders take themselves and help their team to take the second loop around the issue and discover and change the character flaw that created the problem.

In John 21:15-19 Jesus modeled the Double Loop discipline. To set the background, Peter had failed Jesus miserably when he abandoned his mentor and friend at Jesus’ hour of great need. Scripture indicates Peter was humiliated and degraded.

Jesus reconstructed Peter without addressing his behavior at all. There was no lecture on commitment or dedication, no finger pointing or blame that Peter had denied that he even knew Jesus but three times Jesus forced Peter to examine the root of the problem. While Peter’s behavior problem was important, Jesus knew that a change wouldn’t last unless the root of the behavior was addressed.

Leaders committed to God’s best in their personal service and for their team will pay attention to Double-Loop Learning: first time around the loop – behavior; second time around the loop – values and attitudes that drive behavior. Effective leaders do not stop after one time around the learning loop.

Memorize Romans 12:2, “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – His good, pleasing and perfect will.”


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