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Knowing: Self as an Agent of Change

Key Topics

The third "cog" in the area of "knowing," which we call the "Self as an Agent of Change," becomes then, the mechanism for creating deep knowledge, which we define as meaning a level of understanding consistent with the external world and our internal framework. The other purpose of Self as an Agent of Change is to take this deep knowledge and use it for the dual purpose of our own individual learning and growth and for making changes in the external world. There are ten elements we will discuss here. Five of them are internal: Know Thyself, Mental Models, Emotional Intelligence, Learning and Forgetting, and Mental Defenses; and five of them are external: Modeling Behaviors, Knowledge Sharing, Dialogue, Storytelling and Persuasion.

Internal Elements of "Self as an Agent of Change"

The internal elements of "Self as an Agent of Change" are: Know Thyself, Mental Models, Emotional Intelligence, Learning and Forgetting, and Mental Defenses.

The discussion below identifies a number of factors that can help achieve an appropriate balance between change and our resistance to change. This is an important attribute: not all change is for the best, yet rigidity begets antiquity. This balance is a priori situational and comes only from experience, learning and a deep sense of knowing when to change and when not to change the self.

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Know Thyself

Alexander Pope, in his essay on man, noted that: "Know then thyself, presume not God to scan; the proper study of mankind is man." An earlier Greek philosopher, Thales, said this perhaps even better. "Know thyself." We often think we know ourselves, but we rarely do. To really understand our own biases, perceptions, capabilities, etc., each of us must look inside and, as objectively as possible, ask ourselves, who are we, what are our limitations, what are our strengths, and what jewels and baggage do we carry from our years of experience. Rarely do we "take ourselves out of ourselves and look at ourselves." Without an objective understanding of our own values, beliefs, and biases, we are continually in danger of misunderstanding the interpretation we give to the external world. Our motives, expectations, decisions and beliefs are frequently driven by internal forces within us, of which we are completely unaware. For example, as will be discussed shortly, our emotional state plays a strong role in determining how we make decisions and what we decide.

The first step in knowing ourselves is awareness of the fact that we cannot assume we are what our conscious mind thinks we are. Two examples that most of us have experienced come to mind. The first is that we frequently do not know what we think until we hear what we say. The second example is the recognition that every act of writing is an act of creativity. Our biases, prejudices, and even brilliant ideas frequently remain unknown to us until pointed out by others or through conversations.

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Mental Models

After awareness comes the need to constantly monitor ourselves for undesirable traits or biases in our thinking and processing. Seeking observations from others and carefully analyzing our individual experiences are both useful in understanding ourselves. We all have limitations and strengths that we must be aware of and build upon.

Part of knowing ourselves is the understanding of what mental models we have formed in specific areas of the external world. Mental models are the models we use to represent our own picture of reality. They are built up over time and through experience and represent our beliefs, assumptions, and ways of interpreting the outside world. They are efficient in that they allow us to react quickly to changing conditions and make rapid decisions based upon our presupposed model. Concomitantly, they are dangerous if the model is inaccurate or misleading. Because of the current rapidly changing environment, many of our models quickly become outdated. We then must recognize the importance of continuously reviewing our perceptions and assumptions of the external world and questioning our own mental models to ensure they are consistent with reality.

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Emotional Intelligence

The art of knowing in warfare must not only include the understanding of our own mental models, but also the ability to recognize and deal with the mental models of the enemy. Mental models frequently serve as drivers for our actions as well as our interpretations. The use of small groups, dialogue, etc. to normalize mental models with respected colleagues provides somewhat of a safeguard against the use of incomplete or erroneous mental models to create deep knowledge or take action. A subtle but powerful factor underlying mental models is the role of emotions in influencing our perception of reality. This has been brought to light by Daniel Goleman in his seminal book Emotional Intelligence. Emotional intelligence is the ability to sense, understand, and effectively apply the power and acumen of emotions as a source of human energy, information, connection, and influence. It includes self-control, zeal and persistence, and the ability to motivate oneself (Cooper and Sawaf, 1996) (Goleman, 1995). An example of application to the work environment: a team member uses empathy to understand the strongly-expressed viewpoint of another team member and, contrary to his normal tendency, chooses to react calmly while preserving the two-way exchange of thoughts.

To understand Emotional Intelligence, we study how emotions affect behavior, influence decisions, motivate people to action and impact their ability to interrelate. Emotions play a much larger role in our lives than previously thought, including a strong role in decision making. For years it was widely held that rationality was the way of the executive. Now it is becoming clear that both the rational and the emotional parts of the mind must be used together to get the best performance in organizations.

Much of emotional life is unconscious. Awareness of emotions occurs when the emotions enter the frontal cortex. Subconscious emotions play a powerful role in how we perceive and act, and hence in our decision-making. Feelings come from the limbic part of the brain and come forth before any related experiences that created them. They represent a signal that a given potential action may be wrong, or right. Emotions assign values to options or alternatives, sometimes without our knowing it.

There is growing evidence that fundamental ethical stances in life stem from underlying emotional capacities (Goleman, 1995). These stances create the basic belief system, the values and often the underlying assumptions that are used to see the world-our mental model. From this short treatment of the concept, it is clear that Emotional Intelligence is interwoven across the ten elements of Self as an Agent of Change.

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Learning And Forgetting

Creating the deep knowledge of knowing through the effective use of Emotional Intelligence opens the door to two other equally important factors: learning and forgetting. Learning and forgetting are critical elements of Self as an Agent of Change because they are the primary processes through which we change and grow. They are also the prerequisite for continuous learning, so essential for developing competencies representing all of the processes and capabilities discussed previously. Because the environment is highly dynamic and will continue to become more complex and information and knowledge saturated, learning will become more and more essential and critical in keeping up with the world. For learning to be effective, certain criteria must be met. A willingness to exert mental effort, curiosity, the ability to challenge others and ourselves, the self knowledge to permit us to maintain an objectivity and open mind toward things that appear paradoxical or contrary to our experience, and most of all a willingness to experiment, to play with ideas, and to take risks are all parts of effective learning. The classic learning process is called single loop learning in which trial and error and changing our actions according to perceived results create a closed learning loop. This works well under steady-state conditions where the learner eventually finds the right approach to solve a given problem. When the environment is changing rapidly and the learner's belief system prevents generating effective solutions, a different approach is essential. In double-loop learning we challenge our internal beliefs and perceptions and identify new beliefs and perceptions that most effectively represent reality, thus yielding solutions to our problems. This can be quite difficult because we have usually built up defense mechanisms that make it hard to change our internal beliefs. The true test of learning is what we do differently today than what we did yesterday.

Since humans have limited processing capability and the mind is easily overloaded and clings to its past knowledge, "forgetting" becomes as important as learning. Forgetting is the art of being able to give up what was known and true in the past. Being able to let go of past knowledge is essential before creating new mental models and for understanding ourselves as we grow. It is one of the hardest acts of the human mind because it threatens our self-image and may shake even our core belief systems.

The biggest barrier to learning and forgetting arises from our own individual ability to develop invisible defenses against changing our beliefs. These self-imposed mental defenses have been described by Chris Argyrus. The essence of their conclusions is that the mind creates built-in defense mechanisms to support our belief systems and experience. These defense mechanisms are invisible to the individual and may be quite difficult to expose in a real-world situation. They thus represent invisible barriers to change.

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Mental Defenses

Several authors have estimated that information and knowledge double approximately every nine months. If this estimate is even close, the problems of saturation will continue to make our ability to acquire deep knowledge even more challenging. We must learn how to filter data and information through vision, values, goals, and purposes, using intuition and judgment as our tools. This discernment and discretion within the deepest level of our minds provides a proactive aspect of filtering, setting up purposeful mental defenses that reduce complexity and provide conditional safeguards to an otherwise open system. This is a fundamental way in which the self can simplify a situation by eliminating extraneous and undesirable information and knowledge coming from the external world.

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External Elements of "Self as an Agent of Change"

The previous section addressed the Self as an Agent of Change through internal recognition of certain factors that can influence self-change. Another aspect of change is the ability of the self to influence or change the external world. This is the active part of knowing. Once the self has attained deep knowledge and understanding of the situation and of the enemy, this must be shared with others, accompanied by the right actions to achieve warfighting success. The following external elements are addressed below: Modeling Behaviors, Knowledge Sharing, Dialogue, Storytelling, and the Persuasion.

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Modeling Behaviors

Once internal understanding is achieved, the challenge becomes that of translating knowledge into behavior, thus creating the ability to model that behavior to influence others into taking requisite actions. Role modeling has always been a prime responsibility of leadership in the military as well as in the civilian world. Having deep knowledge of the situation the individual must then translate that into personal actions that become a role model for others to follow and become motivated and knowledgeable about how to act. Effective role modeling does not require the learner to have the same deep knowledge as the role model, yet the actions and behaviors that result may reflect the equivalent deep knowledge - but only in specific situations. This is how you share the effectiveness from learning and thereby transfer implicit knowledge.

The military leadership model is built on the fundamental premise of modeling behavior. While accession training for both the Officer Corps and enlisted ranks includes exposure to leadership principles, it is the modeling of leadership by seniors in the chain-of-command that helps form the lasting leadership traits of subordinates. Seniors are expected to continuously demonstrate the highest standards of leadership such as duty, honor, integrity, professionalism, and a sincere concern for the well being of subordinates. Juniors are expected to observe these leadership traits in action and then internalize them in the process of developing their own personal leadership style.

An example of this leadership modeling can be seen in the career path of a submarine officer. During an initial tour as a division officer, the junior submarine officer is not only learning the necessary skills required to operate the submarine, but he is also observing the leadership being modeled by his department head, executive officer and commanding officer. This same pattern of observing the leadership traits of seniors is repeated in subsequent submarine tours as a department head and then executive officer. During the executive officer tour the table is turned and the commanding officer is observing the leadership qualities of the XO to determine whether he possesses the leadership traits necessary to assume the privileged role of submarine commanding officer.

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Knowledge Sharing

Wherever possible, of course, it is preferable to share as much knowledge as possible to allow others to act independently and develop their own internally and situation-driven behavior. Since much of deep knowledge is tacit, knowledge sharing can become a real challenge.

Knowledge makes people feel important. If workers are rewarded for their individual level of knowledge and expertise, then they are motivated to try to increase this level, while at the same time ensuring that the level of their competitors for such rewards (usually co-workers competing for salary and promotion) does not increase. This, of course, leads to the harboring of knowledge and the so-called "Knowledge is Power" culture within an organization.

If a person hoards information and knowledge, he or she may become known as an expert in a particular area with the likely benefit to the individual, but not to the organization. People have little incentive or are often not motivated to share knowledge with one who hoards, as they receive nothing in return. Thus a hoarder's overall knowledge may decrease in the longer term at the detriment to both the person and the organization.
If people share knowledge (and are recognized for sharing knowledge) within an organization, several things can happen:

  1. The value of that knowledge increases for the entire organization. Knowledge from one individual is shared and used by others who may find ways to improve upon it or innovate.
  2. The "reputation" of individuals who share their expertise by actively teaching others is improved and recognized.
  3. People route new knowledge and information to a recognized "sharing-expert" in a particular area so that he/she has more complete knowledge of that area-thus becoming recognized for a higher level of expertise and a more valuable resource to the organization as a reference or Subject Matter Expert.
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A third technique for orchestrating external change is through the use of dialogue. Dialogue is a process first originated by David Bohm to create a situation in which a group participates as coequals in inquiring and learning about some specific topic. In essence, the group creates a common understanding and shared perception of a given situation or topic. Dialogue is frequently viewed as the collaborative sharing and development of understanding. It can include both inquiry and discussions, but it must suspend judgment and not seek specific outcomes and answers. It stresses the examination of underlying assumptions and listening deeply to the self and others to develop a collective meaning. This collective meaning is perhaps the best way in which the deep knowledge of a situation that we have been addressing in this paper may be developed as a group and understood by others.

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Another way of creating change and sharing understanding is through the effective use of the time-honored process of storytelling. Storytelling is a valuable tool in helping to build a common understanding of our current situation in anticipating possible futures and preparing to act on those possible futures. Stories tap into a common consciousness that is natural to all human communities. Repetition of universal story forms carries a subliminal message, a sub-text that can help convey a high level of complex meaning. Since common values enable consistent action, "Story in this guise creates a heuristic framework to allow decision-making in conditions of uncertainty." This form of communication is currently being utilized at the highest levels of the Department of the Navy. For example, the Undersecretary of the Navy used stories to envision applications of a Navy Marine Corps Intranet during Congressional hearings held in April 2000. (See white paper on Storytelling.)

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Modeling behavior, knowledge sharing, dialogue, and storytelling are all forms of building understanding and knowledge. Persuasion, our fifth technique, serves to convince others of a specific conviction or belief and/or to act upon it. To change the external environment, we need to be persuasive and to communicate the importance and need for others to take appropriate action. The question arises: When you have deep knowledge, what aspects of this can be used to effectively influence other's behavior? Since deep knowledge is tacit knowledge, we must learn how to transfer this to explicit knowledge. Nonako and Taguichi and Polyani have done seminal work in this area.

Persuasion, as seen from the perspective of the self, gets us back to the importance of using all of our fundamental values, such as personal example, integrity, honesty, and openness to help transfer our knowing to others.

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