Magazine article Training & Development

A Chat with Chris Argyris

Magazine article Training & Development

A Chat with Chris Argyris

Article excerpt

If you don't already know him, meet Chris Argyris. He's the James Bryant Conant Professor Emeritus of Education and Organizational Behavior at the Graduate School of Business, Harvard University, and the director of the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Monitor Company.

Read a bibliography of his published works and you'll find that it stretches back to 1951. Yale University - where Argyris taught from 1951 to 1971 - recently established the Chris Argyris Chair in the Social Psychology of Organization. The American Psychological Association is honoring him with its highest award - the Gold Medal for Lifetime Contribution to the Application of Psychology. The London Business School is bestowing an honorary doctorate on Argyris this summer in recognition of his distinguished research career. And there's more. He has also been widely recognized for his contributions to business theory.

Recently, T&D spoke with Chris Argyris about some of his favorite topics - learning, leadership, and change.

Where are organizations now, and where are they headed with respect to learning?

First of all, I make a distinction between learning that challenges the status quo - which I call double-loop learning - and learning that is routine, which I call single-loop learning.

The greatest emphasis has been on single-loop learning. It has been relatively successful, but it hasn't produced change. That, in my estimation, leads to a lack of credibility for human resource professionals. I predict that the next step will be that we will be able to talk more about double-loop learning.

In all fairness, there are HR and training people who understand the difference between single- and double-loop learning. They say that they haven't been able to concentrate much on double-loop learning and that they didn't think they had permission and enthusiasm from top management. So, they went along with it. They wished that they didn't have to create the gap. In all of these human programs of learning, leadership, and change, that's going to be the biggest thing.

Is it a matter of getting management's buy-in?

The biggest problem is that CEOs can see the distinction, but they're concerned about whether their HR staff can produce that kind of learning.

When I talked recently to a group of 20 senior HR people from around the world, I realized that they get their greatest reward from keeping their companies out of trouble. But when they talk about double-loop learning, they get resistance. So, they bypass it. I asked them, "If you didn't bypass it, what would you have said?" They suggested that they would accuse top management of not focusing on double- and single-loop learning. Then I asked, "Assume that top management agrees with you. What would you do?" At that point, I believe HR people are stuck. They don't have the skills and competence to produce what they're talking about. And some top managers may say, "I'm not going to turn this loose on an organization unless we know how to do it and how to do it well."

A first step is for senior HR professionals to develop the necessary skills and competence for double-loop learning. Second, they should develop an actionable theory for it. I don't think they do that now. Very often, it's true that the bosses don't walk their talk, but neither do the [staff]. And employees place a lot of the blame on the supervisor, partially because they are the supervisor but also because they don' t accept their own personal responsibility for the problem.

So, it's a combination of gaps in communication and skills?

Yes, it's a combination. In addition to those gaps, there are defensive routines that have built up in organizations for years. People know about them, but they are undiscussable. So, we have a gap problem, and we also have defensive routines that reward the gap.

In some programs in which executives take a look at their own behavior, a manager may become aware that he's much more controlling of people than he thought he was. …

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