The Next Faithful Step

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Espoused Theory

Scott Cormode, Fuller Seminary

Expectations (and the mental models that form them) are tricky not just because people are often unaware of them. It goes further than that. The respected Harvard scholar Chris Argyris makes an important distinction between espoused theory and theory-in-use.1 Espoused theory describes the reasons we give for our actions; theory-in-use describes the more complicated theory that explains how we actually behave. He's not talking about the times that we claim to be doing something for a noble reason but know in our heart of hearts that we have ulterior motives. That's only part it. He is talking about the internal conversations where we explain our actions to ourselves—where we think we are doing one thing but we are really doing something a bit different. For example, I have worked hard to cultivate the practice of hospitality. I tell my students that they can drop by my office not just during office hours but whenever my light is on. I espouse this theory because I want to be the kind of professor who welcomes students. But there is a problem. Sometimes I am not in the mood to see people. Sometimes I have a pressing deadline. Or, as much as I hate to admit it, sometimes there are difficult students who I'd rather not have to deal with. So I sometimes listen politely and then send them on their way. I give them the appearance of hospitality without being particularly hospitable. I am not proud of this. And I try to stop myself when I realize I am doing it.2 But the behavior illustrates Argyris' distinction. My espoused theory is hospitality. My theory-in-use is convenient hospitality (i.e. I will welcome people so long as it does not cost me too much). The difference between espoused theory and theory-in-use is often the caveats we attach to our espoused theory (i.e. so long as it does not cost me too much). Every one of us espouses one thing while practicing another.

This distinction is germane to our discussion of self-fulfilling expectations because we often make sense of our own actions by filtering them through the lens of an espoused theory (or an espoused theology). I may look back on an encounter with a student and say to myself, "Of course I was not short with her. I value hospitality. I'm the guy who does not have office hours." My intent hides from me what actually happened. This is important both for what we do and what we observe. It should provide a loud caution for interpreting the moment when we disagree with someone else over what happened. I have to ask myself if my intentions are masking my true behavior.

The distinction also helps a leader understand other people. Sometimes I observe someone saying they are doing one thing while "obviously" doing another. For example, the Worship Committee was discussing the place of children in worship. At one point in the discussion, a congregant named Sue, known for her support of children, said, "Whole families should worship together because we are all part of the family of God and everyone should be accepted for who they are." But later in the conversation, she noted in passing that, "Of course, parents have a responsibility to keep kids quiet or take them out of the sanctuary." A fourth-grade teacher named Barry jumped on the comment. "Children are always noisy. That's who they are. You can't really say, Sue, that you value children if you just want them to be miniature adults."

There are at least three lessons to learn from this scene. First, Sue is not morally suspect for having a disparity between what she espoused and what she actually believed. She was not aware of the contrast and every one of us has such disparities. Second, Sue did not understand Barry's accusation. She must have been thinking, "How can he say that about me? I started out by saying that children belong in worship." In her mind, she was supporting children. And her espoused theology was the lens that she used to judge her own actions. I have come to describe it this way. I judge myself by my intentions, but I judge other people by their actions. I intend to practice hospitality; so hospitality is the lens through which I interpret my actions. My student does not know about my lens and may see my actions as arrogant and rude. But I say to myself, "I can't be rude; I am practicing hospitality." The intentions I espouse thus prevent me from learning. I judge myself by my intentions and others by their actions.

There is a third lesson from the Worship Committee case because there is a way for the leader to be proactive when someone may be espousing a theology that they may not be able to live out. Often the disparity either comes from unspoken caveats that the speaker has not anticipated or it derives from having competing commitments. In such situations, a leader can pose a hypothetical situation in order to get the speaker to name the qualifications they would put on their generalizations. So, in this case, the leader might ask Sue about what would happen if, say, a baby was crying during the sermon or a kid kept whispering to her mother during a prayer. Sue may well respond by saying that in such cases the parent should remove the child from the sanctuary. This would allow the leader to surface the competing commitments that separate the espoused theory from the theory-in-use by saying something like, "It sounds like you value two things and that sometimes they conflict. You value the presence of children in worship because they are part of the family of God. And you believe each person should be able to worship without distractions. But the problem is that the two values sometimes compete with each other. Kids will inevitably be distracting. So I think you are saying that you want the worship-without-distractions value to have priority over the children-are-part-of-God's-family value. I also think Barry would flip-flop those values. So I guess the next step for us is to have you, Sue, say if I've accurately described your values. And, if I have, then we should discuss together the priority of each."

This loops back to our discussion of expectations and mental models. People regularly have unspoken expectations about how their statements will be heard.3 The expectations shape the way that a person understands the meaning of her own words. But others in the room often do not know about those expectations. Indeed, the speaker herself is often unaware of them. Sue did not realize that there were limits to her commitment to children in worship until that commitment bumped into other commitments.4 Most people lack the self-awareness to know when they have created caveats to their espoused values. That means that one of the most important things a leader can do to help a group or person make meaning is to surface and to name the competing commitments behind unspoken expectations. 

People will, in summary, construct meaning in a given situation based on the expectations they bring into the situation. This happens because expectations shape what people are able to see. A leader needs to be aware of the expectations that people bring to a situation, including the expectations that the pastor himself brings. The leader needs to recognize when someone's expectations are clouding their ability to make meaning. And the leader needs to help people through the painful process of aligning their expectations with their espoused theological commitments.



1 Argyris, "Teaching Smart People How to Learn,"; cf. Anita Farber-Robertson, Learning While Leading: Increasing Your Effectiveness in Ministry (Washington, DC: The Alban Institute, 2000), which attempts to translate some of Argyris' key ideas to the congregational realm.

2 Pastors reading this will recognize the dilemma and each, no doubt, has her own way of dealing with it. I do two things to combat my tendency to espouse more hospitality than I deliver. I tell my students this story up front so that I am not setting their expectations too high. And I have worked out a script I follow when I find myself giving someone short shrift. I tell them that I am in the middle of something and/or distracted (which is usually the reason for my inattention) and then I ask them if we can make an appointment for an alternative time. Usually this works. Every one once in awhile, however, a student's reaction tells me that later will not work. Seeing their need usually is enough to focus my attention. But, I must admit, I have a ways to go before I feel great about how well I live up to my espoused theory of hospitality.

3 Another name for unspoken expectations is "assumptions." But I am avoiding that phrasing because there is such a negative connotation to the word "assume." (We all know the aphorism about what assuming does.) Leaders cannot be in a position of embarrassing people. And, if we tell people we are surfacing assumptions, there are people who will feel that we are blaming them for having unspoken expectations. We want to avoid any language that encourages defensiveness or blame.

4 On competing commitments, see Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey, How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work: Seven Languages for Transformation (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001) 47-66.