Monday, 28 May 2007

Barriers to Sharing 1: fear of being seen to be incompetent

In interviewing participants for my research, certain key areas came up again and again, one of which is the issue of confidence.

When discussing knowledge sharing and blogs as a vehicle for knowledge sharing, it was clear that what they said about the usefulness of sharing, wasn’t reflected in practice. They were keen on the concept of sharing, and said they enjoyed reading what others had posted, even that this led to some extent on their reflecting on their own practice.

What interesting was that they wanted to read about others thoughts and experiences, but weren’t willing to describe their own...

When questioned about why they thought people weren’t posting, participants felt to some extent, that people weren’t posting due to a lack of confidence. In digging deeper, this appeared in some part to be due to the perception that as Project Managers, they should be able to do their job, to manage projects. If they are seen to be asking questions about project management, or stating something that others may think is incorrect, they will look as though they are incompetent.

Chris Argyris has said that people will talk about what they do in terms of their espoused theory, what they believe is the best answer to the question, but what they actually do doesn’t necessarily reflect what they actually do, their theory-in-use. This does appear to be the case with the study participants, and they appear to be demonstrating what he calls Model I behaviour.

This behaviour, by which theories-in-use are oriented towards winning, and avoiding embarrassment, Argyris believes leads to deeply entrenched defensive routines (Argyris 1990; 1993). He believes that sharing action, thoughts and feelings can make people vulnerable to the reactions of others – a no brainer there, who hasn't at some stage felt nervous about saying what they think, but it seems this behaviour, very simply, can be attributed to a lack of confidence and fear of being seem to be incompetent.

“Acting defensively can be viewed as moving away from something, usually some truth about ourselves. If our actions are driven by moving away from something then our actions are controlled and defined by whatever it is we are moving away from, not by us and what we would like to be moving towards. Therefore our potential for growth and learning is seriously impaired. If my behaviour is driven by my not wanting to be seen as incompetent, this may lead me to hide things from myself and others, in order to avoid feelings of incompetence. For example, if my behaviour is driven by wanting to be competent, honest evaluation of my behaviour by myself and others would be welcome and useful. (Anderson 1997)”

If we consider that these people are working in a health context, where competence, particuarly medical competence, is seen as the bedrock of the organisation, it may be that project managers are very aware of the need to be competent.

It seems a viscious circle ensues, where the need to be competent drives the need to learn, but this need is thwarted by the fear of being perceived to be incompetent.

It’s been suggested that the professionalisation of Project Managers in the NHS would help practitioners acknowledge that they are continually learning. This might also put even more pressure on them.
Interestingly, I read a post by Andrew Latham on the subject of confidence and blogging, in his experience, in terms of software development, which seems to reflect the issue. In his situation it seems that it's acknowledged that people need to continutally learn, to progress in order to do their job well, and that colleagues can help this process.

Encouraging a learning culture and making opportunties for continuing professional development may be a way around this (sounds simple doesn't it), but until a culture of learning becomes the norm, I’m not convinced that knowledge sharing through online communites and blogging will be effective.

As Argyris says, it’s only by interrogating and changing the governing values, that new action strategies can be produced that can address changing circumstances.

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