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Chris Argyris

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Chris Argyris (born July 16, 1923 in Newark, New Jersey, USA) is an American business theorist, Professor Emeritus at Harvard Business School, and a Thought Leader at Monitor Group.[1] He is commonly known for seminal work in the area of "Learning Organizations".

Action Science, Argyris' collaborative work with Robert W. Putnam [2] and Diana McLain Smith,[3] advocates an approach to research that focuses on generating knowledge that is useful in solving practical problems. Other key concepts developed by Argyris include Ladder of Inference, Double-Loop Learning (Argyris & Schön 1974), Theory of Action/Espoused Theory/Theory-in-use, High Advocacy/High Inquiry dialogue and Actionable Knowledge.

Chris Argyris’ early research explored the impact of formal organizational structures, control systems and management on individuals and how they responded and adapted to them. This research resulted in the books Personality and Organization, 1957 and Integrating the Individual and the Organization, 1964. He then shifted his focus to organizational change, in particular exploring the behaviour of senior executives in organizations (Interpersonal Competence and Organizational Effectiveness, 1962; Organization and Innovation, 1965).

From there he moved on to an inquiry into the role of the social scientist as both researcher and actor (Intervention Theory and Method, 1970; Inner Contradictions of Rigorous Research, 1980 and Action Science, 1985 – with Robert Putnam and Diana McLain Smith). His fourth major area of research and theorizing – in significant part undertaken with Donald Schön – was in individual and organizational learning and the extent to which human reasoning, not just behavior, can become the basis for diagnosis and action (Theory in Practice, 1974 ; Organizational Learning, 1978; Organizational Learning II, 1996 – all with Donald Schön). He has also developed this thinking in Overcoming Organizational Defenses, 1990 and Knowledge for Action, 1993.

Action ScienceEdit

Argyris' concept of Action Science begins with the study of how human beings design their actions in difficult situations. Human actions are designed to achieve intended consequences and governed by a set of environment variables. How those governing variables are treated in designing actions are the key differences between single loop learning and double loop learning. When actions are designed to achieve the intended consequences and to suppress conflict about the governing variables, a single loop learning cycle usually ensues. On the other hand, when actions are taken, not only to achieve the intended consequences, but also to openly inquire about conflict and to possibly transform the governing variables, both single loop and double loop learning cycles usually ensue. (Argyris applies single loop and double loop learning concepts not only to personal behaviors but also to organizational behaviors in his models.)

Model 1 illustrates how single loop learning affects human actions. Model 2 describes how double loop learning affects human actions. The following Model 1 and Model 2 tables introduce these ideas (tables are from Argyris, Putnam & Smith, 1985, Action Science, Ch. 3.) Other key books conveying Argyris’ approach include Argyris & Schon, 1974 and Argyris, 1970, 1980, 1994).

Table 1 Model 1 Theory-In-Use

Governing Variables Action Strategies Consequences for the Behavioral World Consequences for Learning Effectiveness
Define goals and try to achieve them Design and manage the environment unilaterally (be persuasive, appeal to larger goals) Actor seen as defensive, inconsistent, incongruent, competitive, controlling, fearful of being vulnerable, manipulative, withholding of feelings, overly concerned about self and others or under concerned about others Self-sealing Decreased effectiveness
Maximize winning and minimize losing Own and control the task (claim ownership of the task, be guardian of definition and execution of task) Defensive interpersonal and group relationship (dependence upon actor, little additivity, little helping of others) Single-loop learning
Minimize generating or expressing negative feelings Unilaterally protect yourself (speak with inferred categories accompanied by little or no directly observable behavior, be blind to impact on others and to the incongruity between rhetoric and behavior, reduce incongruity by defensive actions such as blaming, stereotyping, suppressing feelings, intellectualizing) Defensive norms (mistrust, lack of risk taking, conformitment, emphasis on diplomacy, power-centered competition, and rivalry) Little testing of theories publicly, much testing of theories privately
Be rational Unilaterally protect others from being hurt (withhold information, create rules to censor information and behavior, hold private meetings) Little freedom of choice, internal commitment, or risk taking

Table 2 Model 2 Theory-In-Use

Governing Variables Action Strategies Consequences for the Behavioral World Consequences for Learning Consequences for Quality of Life Effectiveness
Valid information Design situations or environments where participants can be origins and can experience high personal causation (psychological success, confirmation, essentiality) Actor experienced as minimally defensive (facilitator, collaborator, choice creator) Disconfirmable processes Quality of life will be more positive than negative (high authenticity and high freedom of choice)
Free and informed choice tasks are controlled jointly Minimally defensive interpersonal relations and group dynamics Double-loop learning effectiveness of problem solving and decision making will be great, especially for difficult problems Increase long-run effectiveness
Internal commitment to the choice and constant monitoring of its implementation Protection of self is a joint enterprise and oriented toward growth (speak in directly observable categories, seek to reduce blindness about own inconsistency and incongruity) Learning-oriented norms (trust, individuality, open confrontation on difficult issues) Public testing of theories
Bilateral protection of others

Honorary degreeEdit

Chris Argyris received an Honorary Doctor of Laws degree from the University of Toronto in 2006. He also received a Doctor of Science award from Yale University in 2011[4]

Selected booksEdit

  • Argyris, C. 1957. Personality and Organization: the Conflict between System and the Individual. New York: Harper. OCLC 243920
  • Argyris, C. 1962. Interpersonal Competence and Organizational Effectiveness. Homewood, Ill.: Dorsey Press. OCLC 254242
  • Argyris, C. 1964. Integrating the Individual and the Organization. New York: Wiley. ISBN 0471033154
  • Argyris, C. 1965. Organization and Innovation. Homewood, Ill.: R.D. Irwin. OCLC 228981
  • Argyris, C. 1970. Intervention Theory and Method: a Behavioral Science View. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley. ISBN 0201003422
  • Argyris, C. 1971. Management and Organizational Development: the Path from XA to YB. New York: McGraw-Hill. ISBN 0070022194
  • Argyris, C. 1972. The Applicability of Organizational Sociology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521084482
  • Argyris, C. 1974. Behind the Front Page: Organizational Self-Renewal in a Metropolitan Newspaper. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. ISBN 087589223X
  • Argyris, C., Schön, D.A. 1974. Theory in Practice: Increasing Professional Effectiveness. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. ISBN 0875892302
  • Argyris, C. 1976. Increasing Leadership Effectiveness. New York: Wiley. ISBN 0471016683
  • Argyris, C. 1978. Regulating Business: the Search for an Optimum. San Francisco: Institute for Contemporary Studies. ISBN 0917616278
  • Argyris, C., Schön, D.A. 1978. Organizational Learning: a Theory of Action Perspective. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley. ISBN 0201001748
  • Argyris, C. 1980. Inner Contradictions of Rigorous Research. New York: Academic Press. ISBN 0120601508
  • Argyris, C. 1982. Reasoning, Learning, and Action: Individual and Organizational. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. ISBN 0875895247
  • Argyris, C., Putnam, R., Smith D.M. 1985. Action Science: Concepts, Methods, and Skills for Research and Intervention. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. ISBN 0875896650
  • Argyris, C. 1990. Overcoming Organizational Defenses: Facilitating Organizational Learning. Boston: Allyn and Bacon. ISBN 0205123384
  • Argyris, C. 1993. Knowledge for Action: a Guide to Overcoming Barriers to Organizational Change. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. ISBN 1555425194
  • Argyris, C. 1993. On Organizational Learning. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell. ISBN 1557862621
  • Argyris, C., Schön, D.A. 1996. Organizational Learning II: Theory, Method and Practice. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley. ISBN 0201629836
  • Argyris, C. 1999. On Organizational Learning, 2nd ed. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Business. ISBN 0631213082
  • Argyris, C. 2000. Flawed Advice and the Management Trap: How Managers Can Know When They're Getting Good Advice and When They're Not. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195132866
  • Argyris, C. 2004. Reasons and Rationalizations: The Limits to Organizational Knowledge. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 019926807X

See alsoEdit



  1. Argyris Monitor: Thought Leaders
  2. Action Design: Robert Putnam bio
  3. Action Design: Diana Mclain Smith bio
  4. Yale News: Citations for Recipients of Honorary Degrees at Yale University 2011. URL accessed on 2 March 2012.



  • Argyris, C. Putnam, R. & Smith, D. 1985. Action Science: Concepts, methods and skills for research and intervention. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • Argyris, C. 1970. Intervention Theory and Method. Reading MA: Addison-Wesley.
  • Argyris, C. 1980. Inner Contradictions of Rigorous Research. San Diego CA: Academic Press.
  • Argyris, C. 1994. Knowledge for Action. San Francisco CA: Jossey-Bass.

Book ChaptersEdit


External links Edit

fr:Chris Argyris nl:Chris Argyris no:Chris Argyrisfi:Chris Argyris

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