Espoused Theory and Theory In Use: A Distinction Every Leader Needs to Know

My husband I met at work. I was interning in the marketing communications department. He was a full time employee in another department. After my summer internship ended, I was offered a fulltime position upon graduating. It was a great starting salary and my supervisor would have been thrilled to have me. But I turn it down. I had no love for that company because the company had no love for its employees. Love is an action that needs to be seen, felt, and defended at work. But how do you do that?

There is a differences between espoused theory and theory in-use and every leader needs to know this difference.

An organization's espoused theory can be found on the "About us" page of any website. It includes the well crafted mission and values statements. Espoused theories are what we say because we want to believe it. We want to be that way.

However an organization's theory in use is often different from the espoused theory. Theory in use is what is actually used or practiced in an organizations.


I took the internship with that company because I read online about how important their "people" were to them. Their "people" were the backbone of their organization and they were committed to developing their people. That sounded really good to me.

Once I was working in the job, I experienced a different environment. It was one based on the fear of being replaced at any minute. The competition was so fierce that cross-functional collaboration was almost impossible. Many people wanted to look good by making others look bad. Though I was young, I knew  instantly, that was not the right place for me. And even though I was offered an insane starting salary, I turned down the job.

Is there a difference between what you say and what you do?

If so, you could be ushering your best talent out the door. You could also be preventing great talent from even applying.

How to Make Sure Your Espoused and Theory In Use are the same

1. Ask your talent.

Ask your employees (often) if there is inconsistancy between what you say you do and what you actually do. Depending on your culture, you may not get a straight answer right away. You have to be sincere in wanting to know.

2. Ask an outsider.

Coaches and consultants are great for giving a bird's eye view of an organizations. I often ask my coaching clients to tell me their greatest communication strength. Then I listen in our sessions to see if they are using that strength.

One client said listening was his strong suit, but in action, he actually listened very little. He didn't know it. He didn't realize it. For him, his inability to listen well was not intentional. He just neglected to refine that skill since he thought he had already arrived. That was an easy change to make.

3. Develop a plan for change.

Once you have ascertained how you are gapped, develop a plan to fill the gap. What is causing the gap? What needs to happen to close the gap? What barriers (mental, emotional, and systematic) are in the way? How can you overcome them?

Here is a cute video explaining the difference.

How have you experienced Espoused Theory and Theory in Use in action?

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