Argyris, C. - The Executive mind and double-loop learning.pdf

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   Reprinted from The Executive Mind and  Double-Loop Learning  Chris Argyris  2  It's not easy to alter engrained behavior even when that behavior is clearlycounterproductive — but, fortunately for the health of our organizations, it is possible. The Executive Mind and  Double-Loop Learning  Chris Argyris Over the past decade, I have been studying theways executives reason while they are solvingdifficult human and technical problems. Theexecutive mind seems to work in bewildering ways,a few of which I will discuss in this article. For onething, I have identified a pattern of three nested paradoxes embedded in executive reasoning.First, the reasoning executives use to manage people and technical issues leads simultaneously to productive and   to counterproductive consequences.Second, they are unaware of this feature becausethey are disconnected from their own reasoning processes while making tough decisions.Third, they are disconnected from their reasoning processes because of the skills they havemastered to solve tough problems. The skills thatlead to success will also lead to failure.How can the same reasoning necessarily lead to productive and counterproductive consequences?How can people act and at the same time bedisconnected from their reasoning processes? Andwhy is it necessary for them to be disconnectedfrom their reasoning processes in order to solvedifficult problems? What impact do these featureshave on executive problem solving and on theorganization?These nested paradoxes indicate that we aredealing with some deeply   embedded features of thehuman mind. And it is the executive mind thatconcerns us because executives are most often heldresponsible for dealing with the difficult issues inorganizations and in society at large. Organizational Dynamics, Autumn 1982. © 1982, AWCOM Periodicals Division, American Management Associations. All rights reserved. 0090–2616 / 82 / 0015–0005 / $02.00 / 0  3Chris Argyris  is James Bryant Conant Professor of education and organizational behavior at Harvard University. His academic degrees are: A.B., Clark University; M.A., Kansas University; Ph.D., Cornell University; and honorary doctorates from McGill University, the University of Leuven, Belgium, and theStockholm School of Economics. From 1951 to 1971, Argyris was Beach Professor of administrative sciences at Yale University; he served as chairperson of thedepartment during the latter part of the period. His earlyresearch focuses on the unintended consequences for individuals of formal and organizational structures,executive leadership, and control and management -information systems — and on how individuals adapted tochange those consequences (Integrating the Individual and the Organization, John Wiley & Sons, 1964). He thenturned his attention to ways of changing organizations(Organization and Innovation, Irwin-Dorsey, 1965). Thisled him to focus on the role of the social scientist asresearcher and interventionist (Inner Contradictions of  Rigorous Research, Academic Press, 1980). During the past decade, he has been developing, with Donald Schön,a theory of learning in which human reasoning, not just behavior, becomes the basis for diagnosis and action(Organizational Learning, Addison-Wesley, 1978). Argyris's latest book is (Reasoning, Learning, and Action: Individual and Organizational (Jossey-Bass, 1982). THE EXECUTIVE MIND DEFINED By executive mind, I mean the way executivescreate premises, make inferences, and arrive atconclusions. Surprisingly, executives (or anyoneelse, for that matter) are usually unaware of their reasoning processes. There are two reasons for this.First, they have great reasoning skill — the activityis second nature to them, and they are rarely awareof it while they are doing it. Indeed, as is true of most skilled behavior, they rarely focus on it unlessthey make an error. Second, when they do makeerrors, other people — especially subordinates — may feel it is safest to play down the error, or mayease in the correct information so subtly that the ex-ecutive will probably not even realize that he didmake an error.These actions at the upper levels are especiallydetrimental to the organization's capacity to detectand correct errors, to innovate, to take risks, and toknow when it is unable to detect and correct error.Such consequences can lead to difficulties in gettingthe everyday job done correctly. But worse, lack of attention to the underlying policy issues can lead tothe organization's losing control of its destiny.In a previous article I gave an example in whichmanagers at all levels rounded out sentences inreports in ways designed to (1) avoid upsettingthose at the top too much and, at the same time, (2) permit the subordinates involved to cover themselves. The result was a multimillion dollar error that led to the closing of major facilities. Theerror was known, and the consequences predictable, by managers at the lower levels several years beforethe crisis exploded into the open.  Figure 1 WHAT Y SAID TO X 1.   X, your performance is not up to standard (andmoreover. . .)2.   You seem to be carrying a chip on your shoulder.3.   It appears to me that this has affected your per-formance in a number of ways. I have heardwords like lethargy, uncommitted, and disin-terested used by others in describing your recent performance.4.   Our senior professionals cannot have thosecharacteristics.5.   Let's discuss your feelings about your perfor-mance.6.   X, I know you want to talk about the injusticesthat you believe have been perpetrated on you inthe past. The problem is that I am not discussingsomething that happened several years ago. Nothing constructive will come from it. It's behind us.7.   I want to talk about you today and about your future in our system.  4 Our research indicates that when executives dealwith difficult, threatening, underlying issues, theyuse reasoning processes that, at best, simultaneouslylead to immediate success and long-range problems.Often the problems go unsolved, compounding thelong-range difficulties. Much of this occurs withoutexecutives' realizing it. Or, if they do realize it,many believe that no other outcome is possible.They are correct if they are willing to accept theworld as it is, without seeking alternatives.According to the Pentagon Papers, this is whathappened at upper levels in the Defense Departmentas well as in the State Department.To illustrate how we arrived at theseconclusions, I want to present data from a case thatconcerns one of the most difficult problemsexecutives face — namely, to help fellowexecutives realize that their     performance isdeteriorating when they believe otherwise. Later Iwill show how the results from this case apply toother common but difficult leadership problems.(The reader may wish to try his hand at solving thiscase and compare his or her response with those of our sample.) CORRECTING POOR PERFORMANCE: ADIAGNOSTIC CASE Y, a senior executive, must tell X, an older officer, that his performance during the past fiveyears has fallen below standard. Y knows that thedifficulty of his task is compounded by the fact thatX believes his performance has topped off becauseof the way the firm has dealt with him.We give the executives in a seminar a transcriptof several key sentences that Y used in talking withX (Figure 1) — sentences that represent the range of meanings that Y communicated to X during their session.We then ask the executives to answer threequestions:1.   How effective do you believe Y was in dealingwith X?2.   What advice would you give Y?3.   Assume that Y asked you for your evaluation of his effectiveness in dealing with X. Write your response, using the following format, for two or three doublespaced pages. Your thoughts and feelings (Give in this column any thoughtsand feelings you had during thesession but which you did notcommunicate.) What you and Y said I: (Write what you would say.)Y: (Write what you expect Ysresponse would be.)I: (Write your response to this.)Y: (Write Ys response.)and so forth The responses presented below were made bythe 15 top senior officers, including the CEO, of afive-billion-dollar corporation. If your answers donot vary significantly from those in our sample, thenthe consequences that followed for the executiveswill more than likely occur for you. (If your answersare different, please mail them to me. It will help us better understand the gaps in our research.) THE EXECUTIVES' EVALUATION OFY's EFFECTIVENESS Figure II is a collage of the executives' answersto Question 1. Briefly, the results are as follows:ãThe executives evaluated Y as being in-effective in his dealings with X.By the way, the reader may be interestedto know that line executives were ascompassionate about X as were governmen-tal executives and organization development professionals. Indeed, the line executiveswere slightly more concerned than the other two groups that Y was too power-oriented,an uncaring executioner of company policies. ã The executives organized their responses by inventing what might be called a minia-ture causal theory of human behavior:  If   Y(or anyone else) communicates meanings of the kind that Y communicated to X, then therecipient will feel defensive and learningwill be blunted.If you agree with this explanation, then you areusing an explanation that, strictly speaking, doesn'tcome from the data. For example, why should
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