Double loop learning, the limits of reason and polite oppression

Chris Argyris’s work on single- versus double-loop learning gets cited a lot by folks trying to get organisations working better. Here’s a classic article (pdf) in which Argyris explains his thinking.

He points to the tremendous difficulty people have with genuinely challenging their own thinking. It’s much easier to “problem-solve”, a way of thinking that fixes the issue in the external environment instead of looking for our own part in it. He gives some great examples of how people struggle to come to terms with their own defensiveness. He describes double-loop learning as a way of thinking in which we are able to explore our own part in the troubles we create.

He gives some good examples of management teams struggling and failing to look at their own behaviour and sticking to fixing the blame elsewhere.

He argues that this is particularly difficult for “smart people” because, he suggests, they haven’t experienced sufficient failure so find it harder to recognise.  I really don’t see this kind of blinkered thinking is particularly confined to smart people. I think smart people may be able to conceal their feelings more successfully behind a screen of clever thought, but that’s not quite the same thing.

He also argues that change needs to start with senior people, because they’re the ones most likely to be the subject of appeasement and avoidance by their juniors. This makes lots of sense but here’s the paradox. Whereever you are in a hierarchy, you can push the blame upwards to bosses who won’t listen. And the CEO will have someone else he can blame eg investors. The trouble with looking to the top for change is that the people at the top don’t think they are there. And I like to think change can result from a lucky or inspired piece of bravery from anywhere. And we all know of people who aren’t “senior” but wield tremendous power for good or ill in organisations.

The other aspect of the approach that makes me uncomfortable is the tendency to idealise how conversations should happen. He describes how conversations would be more productive if people engaged in double-loop learning. His examples are rather comic in their bland, polite constructiveness. Sorry, but this isn’t how things happen in the real world of mistakes, errors and outbursts of feeling.

When I run into people advocating “double loop learning” I often get this feeling of polite oppression. One the more interesting challenges of being human is trying to manage our desire to be rational with the reality that our decision making is inherently emotional. There’s something about the notion of “double loop learning” that often feels to me like a big status play. You are emotional, whereas I am a double-loop learner, darling. The call for politeness in the face of distress is often a tactic of the most powerful against the underprivileged.

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