Behavioural theory of Argyris and Schn a summary

Behaviour is governed by theories of action. A theory of action is defined in terms of a particular situation, S, a particular consequence, intended in that situation, C, and an action strategy, A, for obtaining consequence C in situation S. The general form of a theory of action is similar to a computer program. If you intend to produce consequence C in situation S, then do A.

A theory of action, whether it applies to organisations or individuals, may take two different forms. By espoused theory we mean the theory of action that is brought forward to explain or justify behaviour. The espoused theory of action gives the norms and values people say govern their behaviour. By theory-in-use we mean the theory of action as can be inferred from observable behaviour, the norms and values that actually determine their pattern of actions. From the evidence gained by observing any pattern of action, one might construct alternative theories-in-use which are, in effect, hypotheses to be tested against the data of observation.

In general, the espoused theory of action and the theory-in-use of individuals or organisations are very different, and one may be aware or unaware of that difference. When Al Capone states that he is an honest businessman, he is very well aware that he is actually a crook. In general, however, individuals are unaware of the difference between their espoused theory of action and their theory-in-use. As a result, they are perceived as defensive when confronted with the divergence between their espoused theory of action and their theory-in-use.

Learning, i.e. detecting and correcting error, whether individual learning or organisational learning, can be single loop or double loop. These terms relate to the analogy of a control system, for instance a thermostat that controls a heating installation. When the actual temperature drops below a preset value for the desired temperature, the thermostat activates the heating installation. This is a single loop control system in which the desired temperature is kept constant. If in addition to controlling the actual temperature, the desired temperature is controlled, the control system becomes double-loop, i.e. it comprises two feed-back-loops. Similarly, we call single-loop-learning learning that changes strategies of action in ways that leave the values of a theory of action unchanged.

When a change in the underlying values of a theory of action is involved, we speak of double-loop learning. The double loop refers to the two feedback loops that connect the observed effects of action with the underlying strategies, as well as the values determining these strategies. Strategies and assumptions may change concurrently with, or as a consequence of, a change in values.

Double-loop learning may be carried out by individuals, when their inquiry leads to a change in the values of their theory-in-use, or by organisations, when individuals inquire on behalf of an organisation in such a way as to lead to a change in the values of the organisation's theory-in-use.

Organisations continually engaged in transactions with their environments regularly carry out inquiries that take the form of detection and correction of error. Single-loop learning is sufficient where error correction can proceed by changing organisational strategies and assumptions within a constant framework of values and norms for performance. It is concerned with how to achieve existing goals and objectives, keeping organisational performance within the range specified by existing values and norms. In some cases, however, the correction of error requires an inquiry through which organisational values and norms themselves are modified.

It has been found from numerous observations that when human beings deal with issues that are embarrassing or threatening, their reasoning and action conform to a particular model of theory-in-use which is called Model I (Table A.1).

The consequences of governing values and action strategies of Model I behaviour reinforce those values and strategies. In a world of defensiveness, escalating errors, and self-fulfilling processes, it is understandable that individuals should protect themselves by striving even harder to be in unilateral control, to win and not to lose, to deal with the defensiveness of others by attempting to be, and encouraging others to be, 'rational', and to suppress, as best they can, their own and others' negative feelings. Model I theory-in-use, in such circumstances, is self-sealing. An example of a self-sealing theory-in-use is the teacher who feels that students are lazy and undisciplined, an opinion he will see confirmed again and again as a result of his own attitude towards them.

Another result of Model I is that social virtues such as concern, caring, honesty, strength, and courage become defined in ways that support Model I theory-in-use. For example, concern and caring come to mean: 'Act diplomatically; say things that people want to hear' - meanings that lead to action strategies such a easing-in, covering-up, and telling white lies. Strength becomes defined in terms of winning, maintaining unilateral control of the situation, and keeping private one's feelings of vulnerability.

There is another factor that powerfully reinforces Model I, increasing the likelihood of anti-learning processes. Individuals are highly skilled in the execution of Model I. Skillful actions usually 'work', in the sense of achieving their intended objectives; they appear spontaneous, automatic and effortless; they are taken for granted; and they require little conscious deliberation.

Model I behaviour, characterised by manipulation of the situation to one's

Table A.1 Model I theory-in-use

Governing Variables

Action Strategies

Consequences for Behavioural World

Consequences for Learning Effectiveness

Define goals and try to achieve them.

Design and manage the environment unilaterally (be persuasive, appeal to larger goals, etc.).

actor seen as defensive, inconsistent, incongruent, controlling, fearful of being vulnerable, withholding of feelings, overly concerned about self and others, or underconcerned about others.

Self-sealing. Decreased long-term effectiveness.

Maximise winning and minimise losing.

Own and control the task (claim ownership of the task, be guardian of the definition and execution of the task).

Defensive interpersonal and group relationship (depending on actor, little help to others).

Single-loop learning.

Minimise generating or expressing negative feelings.

Unilaterally protect yourself (speak in inferred categories accompanied by little or no directly observable data, be blind to impact on others and to incongruity; use defensive actions such as blaming, stereotyping, suppressing feelings, intellectualising).

Defensive norms (mistrust, lack of risk taking, conformity, external commitment, emphasis on diplomacy, power-centred 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 behaviour, hold private meetings).

own ends, is universal and widely accepted in our society. When Model I behaviour prevails, double-loop learning becomes impossible. Double-loop learning depends on the exchange of valid information and public testing of attributions and assumptions, which Model I behaviour tends to discourage.

In situations where double-loop learning is essential for effectiveness, an other kind of behaviour, called Model II, is required. The governing variables of Model II are valid information, free and informed choice, and internal commitment (Table A.2).

The governing values of Model II theory-in-use are not opposite to those for Model I.

For example, Model I emphasises that individuals advocate their purposes and simultaneously control the others and the environment in which to ensure that the actor's purposes are achieved. Model II does not reject the skill to advocate one's purposes. It does not reject the unilateral control that usually accompanies advocacy with the typical purpose to win.

Model II couples advocacy with an invitation to others to confront the views and emotions of self and other. It seeks to alter views in order to base them on the most valid information possible and to construct positions to which people involved can become internally committed.

The behavioural strategies of Model II involve sharing power with anyone who has competence and is relevant to deciding the action at hand. Definition of the task and control over the environment are shared with all the relevant actors. Under these conditions individuals will not tend to compete to make decisions for others or to outshine others for self-gratification. In a Model II world individuals seek to find the people most competent or entitled to the decisions to be made.

If new concepts, such as new buildings or urban developments, are created under Model II conditions, the processes used to develop them are open to scrutiny by those who are expected to use them. Equal say is given both to end users and to learned experts. Synthesis - not compromise - is the aim of the Open Design approach under Model II conditions.

Example: Library Technical University Delft

The budget for the new library of the Technical University was initially, in the early nineties, established at € 20.5 million. This budget had not been made for a particular design, but on the basis of a Bill of Requirements - i.e. a list of functional requirements -and empirical calculation rules to translate these requirements into cost prices. A design contest was held in which three reputable architectural firms participated. One design (Mecano) was elected (which satisfied the Bill of Requirements) and prices were offered for building this design by several construction firms. It then be-

Table A.2 Model II theory-in-use

Consequences on Learning

Disconflrmable precesses.

Consequences on Effectiveness Increased long-term effectiveness.

Governing Variables for Action

Action Strategies

Consequences of Behavioural World

Valid information.

Design situations where participants can be origins of action and experience high personal causation.

actor experienced as minimally defensive.

Free and informed choice. Task is jointly controlled.

Minimally defensive interpersonal relations and group dynamics.

Double-loop learning.

Internal commitment to the choice and constant monitoring of its implementation.

Protection of self is a joint enterprise and oriented toward growth.

Learning-oriented norms.

Frequent public testing of theories.

Bilateral protection of others.

High freedom of choice, internal commitment, and risk taking.

came apparent that the library would cost € 24.5 million, i.e. 20% more than initially anticipated.

A typical Model I discussion evolved, including attributions like 'architects can't calculate', and 'the University is too much on the penny' depending on the view of the particular participant in the discussion. The university's newspaper extensively reported those untested attributions and accusations. Finally, the Board ended the public debate by deciding that the design had to be built and extra finance of €4.0 million had to be found. With hindsight everyone is extremely satisfied with the result, but the accusations and attributions of various players left their trail of spoiled relationships. Was that really necessary? If conditions would have been more of a Model II nature, the trade-offs between quality and cost could have been kept factual and based on valid information.

The end result would undoubtedly have been of the same quality, however without the bitter aftertaste of the Model I-discussion.

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