UK: The Gurus - Chris Argyris.

UK: The Gurus - Chris Argyris. - The gently-spoken optimist has a robust message: if managers do not like their environment, they should blame themselves.

by Simon Caulkin.
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The gently-spoken optimist has a robust message: if managers do not like their environment, they should blame themselves.

Chris Argyris is the guru's guru. Now a sprightly 74, the precise, professorial author and researcher (a long-time teacher in both education and management at Harvard) has observed - even set the terms for - many of the most important arguments about organisations and individuals since the war. The mild and unassuming demeanour is deceptive: a management optimist who can't seem to help bringing managers bad news, a romantic with an obsession for rigorous reasoning and observation, a would-be liberator of individuals within organisations who believes that, instead of bad-mouthing management, they should most often be casting out the beam in their own eyes - in his quiet, concentrated way, Argyris goes where more populist practitioners would fear to tread, and is one of the most controversial management thinkers of the last half century.

Nor even now is he much concerned to compromise or mellow. Alongside consultancy and continuing work on the topic which he has done most to bring to managerial consciousness, organisational learning, Argyris is currently writing a book on effective leadership, a subject to which he brings the emphasis on observable data that distinguishes his other work.

In writing his text, he says with a certain relish, he has reviewed 70 books, 'and I can tell you that, in some of the world's greatest authorities on leadership, there's not a single page of actionable knowledge in any of (them)'.

But then, this is the story of Argyris's professional life. Perhaps the foremost investigator of what might be termed the corporate subconscious, Argyris has built a career out of patiently observing and confronting people with uncomfortable truths about their behaviour. In attempting to show why individuals and groups, particularly managers, so often fall short of their professed ideals, his method, unusually, is listening, and his aim to build a platform of knowledge that can serve as a reliable base for action. This preoccupation is reflected in the titles of some of his most important books: Action Science, Knowledge for Action, and Theory in Practice.

Like many of the first generation of post-war US management gurus, Argyris was deeply involved in the heady 'T(raining)-group' experiments in social dynamics conducted by the National Training Laboratories (NTL) in the 1960s. Argyris found in the T-groups themselves some of his richest raw material. 'When we started NTL, we felt we were liberating human beings,' says Argyris. To unfreeze the uptight, authoritarian behaviour of most managers, the two-week-long T-group sessions deprived participants of control and status and encouraged them to let it all hang out. But time after time, back in the grind of their organisational life they forgot about the resolution to be human and under pressure reverted to barking, buttoned-down managerial type. Why?

What Argyris found - and it is the basis of all the theorising about organisational learning ever since - was a radical cleavage between the beliefs people professed ('espoused theories') and the beliefs people actually acted out in the moment of truth ('theories-in-use'). Whatever they genuinely believed they believed, in practice at the first sign of embarrassment or threat they would fall back on a deeply ingrained master programme of behaviour which, claims Argyris, is strikingly similar across cultures and classes. What he calls 'Model 1' behaviour is a profoundly defensive reflex action which swings into operation, blaming others when things go wrong, while striving to maintain control and save face.

People become so skilful at using these defensive routines, Argyris found, that they don't realise that they are doing it. Not surprisingly, such routines could hardly be bettered as a strategy for avoiding real learning and change. Defensive routines, says Argyris, 'protect us from learning about the validity of our reasoning'. To get at this deeper level of resistance, Argyris made a second crucial distinction, this time between ways of processing information. What he terms single-loop learning is a one-dimensional answer to a one-dimensional problem: a manager cuts costs to meet a budget, or - Argyris's favourite example - a thermostat switches the central heating on or off when the temperature changes. Double-loop learning, on the other hand, goes beyond simple feedback or absorption of information. It can only occur when underlying assumptions are questioned, allowing root causes to be tackled and a permanent change to take place.

Organisations and individuals skilled in defensive routines, says Argyris, indignantly deny their own responsibility for circumstances and tenaciously resist attempts to modify their master-programme, ie to learn. This is why changing an organisation's systems mostly remains a single-loop activity and why 'change programmes' rarely change anything. It's also why apparently excellent companies regularly fall from grace. Argyris recounts a top management meeting at IBM in which the group's legendary architect, Tom Watson Jr, was worrying about the company getting bogged down in bureaucracy and inertia. His managers all assured him that such a thing was impossible.

After the meeting, when Argyris questioned the managers in private, some admitted not only that ossification could happen but that it had already begun. Why hadn't they spoken out? They didn't want to offend Tom, he was already overstretched, in any case they could fix it ...

In every company which hits a crisis, he says, people can see the train bearing down on them in the tunnel. But, like rabbits in the glare of the headlights, it takes the impact to make them react. In this context, he believes, the excellence of the companies lauded in the management literature is generally an accident of time and place, more to do with a temporary conjunction of technical strengths or strong management than with a long-term ability to learn and change.

For all Argyris's calm and studious manner, many students and managers find the relentless logic of his teachings uncomfortable, even stressful.

As individuals, he teaches, managers create the environment they operate in. Where it is fraught and dysfunctional, they are part of the problem: by keeping quiet like the IBM managers they reinforce the world that they inhabit.

By the same token, however, individual and group salvation is in people's own hands. The galvanic reactions of firms in crisis already shows that overcoming knee-jerk defence reactions is possible. Argyris aims to demonstrate that it can be done by less traumatic means. Knowledge for Action, one of his most revealing books, allows the reader to sit in as he draws out contradictions in conversations and behaviour which are blocking one of his clients, a young consultancy group, from developing as it wants to.

Confronted with the 'observable data' of their own behaviour, the consultants begin to recognise their defensive routines and work on altering them.

Optimistic and hard-headed as ever, Argyris is now eagerly enlisting computers and information technology to his cause. He believes they will help to bring the objectivity and verifiability of more scientific disciplines to the traditionally soft techniques of human resources. The prize of pursuing the difficult path of objectivity to its conclusion is great: not only more effective, but more honest and challenging organisations in which to work. In most organisations, Argyris points out, competence and fairness are matters of subjective judgment. But in an organisation where they are subject to the same kind of transparency and rigorous interrogation as functional disciplines, competence and justice go hand in hand. That makes for 'a richer definition of human dignity' - and a powerful cause for hope. It's not the dream of dignity that's new, says Argyris. 'What's new is that now it's doable, increasingly producible over time.'

Simon Caulkin writes on management for the Observer

Other gurus profiled in this ocasional series are:

Other gurus profiled in this ocasional series are:

James Champy, October 1996

Sumantra Ghoshal, December 1996

Rosabeth Moss Kanter, February 1997

Tom Peters, May 1997

Gary Hamel, July 1997.

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime