Learning and Unconditional Confidence

Karl Weick points out the essential role of movement in the process of learning. He writes: “Once people begin to act (enactment), they generate tangible outcomes (cues) in some context (social), and this helps them discover (retrospective) what is occurring (ongoing), what needs to be explained (plausibility), and what should be done next (identity enhancement).”

One paradoxical requirement of leadership is to help people get into action when they do not know what to do. An oft used phrase is “paralysis by analysis.” This means people use preparation as a means to avoid action that seems risky. When this occurs, telling people to act is not likely to succeed. Because they lack the courage they will not move and organizational learning ceases.

William Torbert indicates that what is needed is unconditional confidence. He suggests that most professionals practice “conditional confidence,” which is based on the belief that I will perform well as long as the situation does not violate my assumptions about the situation.

Torbert argues that it is possible to deviate from the norm in that I can practice a form of “awakened attention” that allows me to press forward in uncertain and threatening situations, learning as I go. This process of action learning requires that I have unconditional confidence in the fact that I can discard inaccurate assumptions and ineffective strategies in the midst of on-going action. I believe that this is the kind of learning we see when we watch a master move forward in any given domain.

Torbert tells us that the confidence to do this comes when we increase our integrity, and we can increase our integrity by continually monitoring our lack of integrity. If we take this notion seriously it means that leadership is a function of moral power and more power comes from continually examining and improving our own behavior. We change the world by changing ourselves.

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