Chris Argyris (July 16, 1923 – November 16, 2013) was a Greek business theorist, Professor Emeritus at Harvard Business School, and held the position of “Thought Leader” at Monitor Group. Argyris, like Richard Beckhard, Edgar Schein and Warren Bennis, is known as a co-founder of organization development, and known for seminal work on learning organizations.
Born into a family of Greek immigrants to the United States in Newark, New Jersey, Argyris (pronounced AHR-JUR-ris) grew up in Irvington, New Jersey and Athens, Greece. In World War II he served in the U.S. Army Signal Corps. After his service he studied psychology at Clark University, where he met Kurt Lewin. He obtained his MA in 1947, and joined the Kansas University, where he obtained his MSc in Psychology and Economics in 1949. In 1951 received his PhD from Cornell University, with a thesis on the behavior in organizations under the supervision of William F. Whyte.
In 1951 Argyris started his academic career at Yale University as part of the Yale Labor and Management Center where he worked under its director and an early influence, E. Wight Bakke. At Yale he subsequently became appointed Professor of Management science. In 1971 he moved to Harvard University, where he was Professor of Education and Organizational Behavior, until his retirement. Argyris was active as director of the consulting firm Monitor in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
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).
Argyris believed that managers who treat people positively and as responsible adults will achieve productivity. Mature workers want additional responsibilities, variety of tasks, and the ability to participate in decisions. He also came to the conclusion that problems with employees are the result of mature personalities managed using outdated practices.
Argyris’ collaborative work with Robert W. Putnam, (not to be confused with Robert D. Putnam), and Diana McLain Smith 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 and the study of adult personality.
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).