By Scott Cormode

Mind the gap ... between espoused values and actual behavior. CC photo by Larry Johnson

Mind the gap … between espoused values and actual behavior.
CC photo by Larry Johnson


The distinction between espoused theory and theory-in-use helps a leader understand herself. But it also helps a leader understand other people. Sometimes I observe someone saying they are doing one thing while “obviously” doing another. Let me give an example. I happened to observe this in a church context. But it really could have been any nonprofit. 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.” In short, Sue said children were welcome so long as they did not act like children.

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.

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.”

What expectations do you bring into a conversation? CC photo by Amplified2010

What expectations do you bring into a conversation?
CC photo by Amplified2010


This loops back to our discussion of expectations and mental models. People regularly have unspoken expectations about how their statements will be heard. 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. (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, pp. 47-66.) 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.

(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 leadership.fuller.edu.

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