By Scott Cormode

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 in his 1991 Harvard Business Review article, “Teaching Smart People How to Learn.” 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.

Scott Cormode speaking in a conference workshop

Scott Cormode speaking in a conference workshop

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. 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 frequently espouses one thing while practicing another.

Leaders 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 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.

Scott Cormode in a meeting

Scott Cormode in a meeting

This distinction is germane to a 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.

And I have to cultivate new behaviors so that I can live out the values I espouse. To return to the hospitality example, I have created a script for myself that I use whenever some comes to the door. Either I stop what I am doing and sit them down and listen to them, or I say to them, “I am in the middle of something right now. But you are important to me. Is this something that we can make an appointment to discuss, perhaps tomorrow?” And most of the time, people say they can come back. But if someone says that it is urgent, I stop what I am doing and moving to a chair that is not in front of my desk (so that my work is not calling to me) and I give them what I need.

I know myself well enough to know that sometimes I have to choose my behavior in advance rather than letting my feelings dictate my actions. I have to do this because there are times when I know that my actions do not match my espoused theory.

(Previously published in The Next Faithful Step, a resource for leaders.)

Scott Cormode is the Hugh De Pree Professor of Leadership Development at Fuller Theological Seminary and is the author of Making Spiritual Sense: Christian Leaders as Spiritual Interpreters and developer of

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