Chris Argyris

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Chris Argyris
Born(1923-07-16)July 16, 1923
Newark, New Jersey
DiedNovember 16, 2013(2013-11-16) (aged 90)
OccupationAcademic (management)
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Chris Argyris
Born(1923-07-16)July 16, 1923
Newark, New Jersey
DiedNovember 16, 2013(2013-11-16) (aged 90)
OccupationAcademic (management)

Chris Argyris (July 16, 1923 – November 16, 2013[1]) was an American business theorist, Professor Emeritus at Harvard Business School, and a Thought Leader at Monitor Group.[2] Argyris is next to Richard Beckhard, Edgar Schein and Warren Bennis known as co-founder of Organization Development, and known for seminal work of Learning organizations.


Born into a family of Greek immigrants to the United States in Newark, New Jersey, Argyris grew up in Irvington, New Jersey and Athens, Greece.[3] In World War II he served in the U.S. Army Signal Corps.[4] 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, where he 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 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.[5]


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).

Adult personality[edit]

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.

Action science[edit]

Argyris' collaborative work with Robert W. Putnam,[6] (not to be confused with Robert D. Putnam), and Diana McLain Smith[7] 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).

Table 1, Model 1: Theory-In-Use: defensive reasoning

Governing VariablesAction StrategiesConsequences for the Behavioral WorldConsequences for LearningEffectiveness
Define goals and try to achieve themDesign 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 othersSelf-sealingDecreased effectiveness
Maximize winning and minimize losingOwn 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 feelingsUnilaterally 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 rationalUnilaterally 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: productive reasoning

Governing VariablesAction StrategiesConsequences for the Behavioral WorldConsequences for LearningConsequences for Quality of LifeEffectiveness
Valid informationDesign 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 processesQuality of life will be more positive than negative (high authenticity and high freedom of choice)
Free and informed choiceTasks are controlled jointlyMinimally defensive interpersonal relations and group dynamicsDouble-loop learningeffectiveness of problem solving and decision making will be great, especially for difficult problemsIncrease long-run effectiveness
Internal commitment to the choice and constant monitoring of its implementationProtection 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

Selected books[edit]

Publications about Chris Argyris


External links[edit]