Theories of action: theory in use and espoused theory Chris Argyris and Donald Schön (1974)
1. Espoused Theory & Theory-in-Use (We are All Liars4)
One of famous theory of Argyris is the theory-in-action concept. There is a clear gap between what individuals say they want to do (espoused theory) and what they actually do (theory-in-use). People always behave consistently with their mental models (theory-in-use) even though they often do not act in accordance with what they say (espoused theory).
Figure 1 – Split between theory and action2
Without any doubt in times of transition and change people are constantly eaten by dilemmas of how they should behave what they should believe.
It helps to be aware of this duality in order to understand the dynamics of what is happening below the surface. In order to effectively come to grips with new situations, the espoused theories need to be aligned with the theories in use.
Original Description of Argyris and Schon suggest that two theories of action:
- Espoused Theory: The words we use to convey what we do, or what we would like others to think we do. The espoused theory of action for that situation is the answer he usually gives when someone is asked how he would behave under certain circumstances. This is the theory of action to which he gives allegiance, and which, upon request, he communicates to others.
- Theory-in-use: The theory that actually governs his actions is his theory-in-use. They govern actual behavior and tend to be tacit structures. Their relation to action, ‘is like the relation of grammar-in-use to speech’; they contain assumptions about self, others, and environment – these assumptions constitute a microcosm of science in everyday life.
2. Single Loop and Double Loop Learning
Figure 2 – Original Chris Argyris and Donald Schön single loop and double loop learning
There is a difference between “doing things the right way” and making sure that you are “doing the right things”. It’s a different kind of thinking. Argyris refers to this as ‘single loop’ versus ‘double loop’.
Figure 3 – Doing Things Right vs. Doing the Right Things6
Single-loop learning is like a thermostat that learns when it is too hot or too cold and turns the heat on or off. The thermostat can perform this task because it can receive information (the temperature of the room) and take corrective action.
Double-loop learning occurs when an error is detected and corrected in ways that involve the modification of an organization’s underlying norms, policies and objectives. Double loop learning uses feedback from past actions to question assumptions underlying current views. Double loop learning is exactly what you do when you work yourself or your organization through a change.
Well here are some Action Learning questions to help you achieve some double loop learning:
- What am I trying to do?
- What is stopping me from doing it?
- What can I do about it
- Who knows what I am trying to do?
- Who else can do anything to help?
3. We see the World as We are (Not as it is)4
Argyris was the first to introduce the ladder of inference (Peter Senge made extensive use of this concept in the The Fifth Discipline). This is a model of how people process information and assign meaning. In other words: ‘how we make sense’. It can described by example in Figure 4.
Figure 4 – ladder of inference5
4. Theory of immaturity to Maturity stages
Chris Argyris also developed the Theory of Immaturity-Maturity. Individuals progress at different rates from the total immaturity of early childhood (being passive, dependent, shallow, limited activity) to maturity (active, independent, deeper thoughts, more varied interests). Most organizations have bureaucratic or pyramidal values that foster immaturity in workers and “in many cases, when people join the workforce, they are kept from maturing by the management practices utilized in their organizations”.
Argyris’s Immaturity-Maturity Theory is the most intriguing of these motivational theories. Unfortunately, most organizations still adopt the bureaucratic or pyramidal style of leadership. This authoritarian style often resembles a family with a dominating parent (management) exercising almost total control over the children (employees). It is no wonder in these environments that trust and creativity are rare. There are exceptions however. The leadership of the author’s employer, the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) of Nashville, values employees and treats them with respect. As a result, YWCA staff members are more independent and have room to grow.
Figure 5 – Chris Argyris Value System Organization with Maturity Theory
It is easy to apply this theory to many circumstances outside the workplace.
- Families in which parents are either over-protective or, on the other extreme, do not protect their children at all may have offspring who are immature and have trouble forming long-term relationships.
- Governments with strong central authority where people have little personal freedom usually have citizens who are dependent financially and psychologically.
- Schools where rigid rules are more important than the free flow of ideas will probably graduate students with narrow views and a lack of creativity.
“It is obvious that human beings flourish only when they are in an environment with trust, support and independence.”
The fact that bureaucratic/ pyramidal values still dominate most organizations, according to Argyris, has produced many of our current organizational problems.
According to Argyris, seven changes should take place in the personality of individuals if they are to develop into mature people over the years.
Figure 6 – Chris Argyris Seven Stages Immaturity to Maturity
Maturity Theory Implementation in organization
1. Passivity to activity
- Managers should be able to detect which employees possess this “change” and use it to the advantage of the company. Allowing these employees to take on more tasks and responsibilities to ensure maximum productivity.
- Managers should build relationships with employees and get to know them on a more personal basis, in which they could assess their skills and interests and direct them to tasks and responsibilities that would be beneficial to the employee and the company / business.
2. Dependence to independence
This “change” strays away from the classic managerial style which is inconsistent with present adult personalities, and heads in Argyris’ direction of allowing more task and responsibility to be given to employees to inhibit adult maturation in the workplace.
- Managers should always keep an open door to their office for those employees who still need guidance as well ass allow them to accomplish tasks and responsibilities on their own without being restricted to the office.
3. Few behaviors to many behaviors
As infants our only knowledge of how to act/behave is typically happy/good, sad, angry/bad, during the transition from infant to adult we have learned the many ways to act/behave. This “change” is also essential to managers as they want an employee who is capable of acting maturely in any given situation whether they are happy with it or not.This capability of behaving in many ways creates trust and respect between managers and employees and give both the opportunity to further develop the relationship and possibly success of the business/company.
- Managers shouldn’t restrict the jobs of employees to the desk but be able to include them in important meetings and decision making of the company.
4. Shallow interests to deep interests
In argyris theory he suggest that managers who treat their employees as mature adults tend to show more interest in their jobs. Managers who are aware of this “change” within their employees can use this to the advantage of the company/business, in which they can use these further developed interests to benefit the company/business. If a manager were to use the interests of their employees and assign tasks and responsibilities based on this, they would be done more accurately and effectively.
- As well as employee happiness would increase within the workplace as employees would enjoy what they are doing. Managers should experiment with small work tasks when assigning them to employees to discover what interests each individual.
5. Short-term perspective to long-term perspective
- Although a managers job is to loosen the reins and have more employee involvement within the company / business. – A manager wants to be able to be updated and stay on track of the work of their employees. It would be beneficial to a manager working under this theory to keep an organizer such as a smart phone or day planner /calendar to keep themselves updated on the work of their employees, to keep track of any finished or unfinished task and / or responsibilities.
6. Subordination to equality or superiority
This change suggest that as infants we possess a subordinate position (less important) and develop into equal or superior positions as we mature into adults.
- Managers working under this theory should ensure that they don’t take advantage of the role title “manager”, in which they’re the boss who makes all the decisions has all the ideas and tell everyone what to do. Instead a manager should look at themselves more as a part of a team (equal part) in which the ideas and responsibilities are shared between manager and employees. A manager should essentially ensure equality within the workplace.
7. Non self-awareness to self-awareness/self-control.
During childhood, individuals are not aware of the need to control the way they act based on the way they feel. As adults we have become fully aware of ourselves and are capable to not act based on how we feel, but act appropriately based on the situation.
- A manager working under this theory should be aware of the behaviors of their employees and should compliment, award or make notice to said employee about ability or inability to control their feelings and act in a respectful and mature manner in the workplace. Simple gestures such as “Employee of the Month” awards can encourage others to follow in the footsteps of the noticed employee and increase productivity and keep good moods up.
Argyris Maturity Theory Practical in Organization
- Argyris believed that managers should alter supervisory styles to permit more team participation and stimulate relationships, to accomplish this managers should organize work retreats and team building exercises, which will involve the participation of all employees as well as the manager themselves all working as equals to create better and stronger relationships.
- He believed that the miscommunication between employees mature adult personality and outdated management practices to be the blame for employee absence and lack of interest or motivation, managers working under this theory should keep an open door or email for any employees with questions or confusion they may have, this will reassure their employees that you actually care about the work that your employee does for the company and are always there to help guide them in the right direction.
- Chris Argyris also believed that management practices should be consistent with the mature adult personality, meaning that a manager working under this theory should be able to change their managerial styles to accommodate the employees mature adult personality instead of having them having to change to accommodate their practices this will ensure employee encouragement and development within the workplace and that your company is open to change.
According to Argyris, whenever an employee with high maturity level is before a situation tends to take one of three attitudes:
- Escape: reflects into resignation, absenteeism, etc.
- Fight: through structures like unions or even through an informal organization.
- Adaptation: is the most common reaction and consists in developing an apathy and indifference attitude, in which the monthly salary represents compensation for the “punishment” that the work represents.
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