navbar 4Resource papers in action research

Argyris and Schön’s theory on
congruence and learning

Liane Anderson


This is a resource file which supports the regular public program "areol" (action research and evaluation on line) offered twice a year beginning in mid-February and mid-July.  For details email Bob Dick

Based on a chapter from: Anderson, L.  (1994).  Espoused theories and theories-in-use: Bridging the gap (Breaking through defensive routines with organisation development consultants).  Unpublished Master of Organisational Psychology thesis, University of Qld.   To access the full thesis go here (scanned PDF).


For a French translation by Natalie Harmann, go here



Argyris and Schon's work over the past twenty years has been concerned with examining conscious and unconscious reasoning processes (Dick & Dalmau, 1990).  This has precedents in the work of Freud and Jung; in models such as the Johari Window (Luft & Ingham in Hanson, 1973 p.  114), and in Rulla, Imoda and Rideck's (1978, in Dick and Dalmau, 1990) Ideal Self and Actual Self.  It is based on the belief that people are designers of action.  They design action in order to achieve intended consequences and monitor to learn if their actions are effective.

In other words, Argyris and Schon (1974) assert that people hold maps in their heads about how to plan, implement and review their actions.  They further assert that few people are aware that the maps they use to take action are not the theories they explicitly espouse.  Also, even fewer people are aware of the maps or theories they do use (Argyris, 1980).

To clarify, this is not merely the difference between what people say and do.  Argyris and Schon suggest that there is a theory consistent with what people say and a theory consistent with what they do.  Therefore the distinction is not between "theory and action but between two different "theories of action" (Argyris, Putnam & McLain Smith, 1985, p.82).  Hence the concepts Espoused theory and Theory-in-use:

Espoused theory
The world view and values people believe their behaviour is based on
The world view and values implied by their behaviour, or the maps they use to take action

To reiterate they are suggesting that people are unaware that their theories-in-use are often not the same as their espoused theories, and that people are often unaware of their theories-in-use.

They assert that these theories of action determine all deliberate human behaviour.  An example from Argyris' (1987, p93) research may serve to clarify this distinction.  When asked about how he would deal with a disagreement with a client, a management consultant responded that he would first state his understanding of the disagreement, then negotiate what kind of data he and the client could agree would resolve it.  This represents his espoused theory (or the theory behind what he says) which is of joint control of the problem.  A tape recording of the consultant in such a situation however, revealed that he actually advocated his own point of view and dismissed the client's.  This indicated his theory-in-use (or the theory behind what he did), which more closely approximates his unilateral control of the problem and a rejection of valid information exchange.

Argyris (1987, p93) suggests that one reason for insisting that what people do is consistent with a theory, is the contention that what people do is not accidental.  People design the action that they take and are therefore responsible for the design.  His assertion is that although they design the action they are often unaware of the design and of its difference from their espoused design.

This raises the question, if people are unaware of the theories that drive their action (Theories-in-use), then how can they effectively manage their behaviour?  Argyris (1980) suggests that effectiveness results from developing congruence between Theory-in-use and Espoused theory.

The models and conceptualisations developed by Argyris and Schon are for the purpose of helping people to be able to make more informed choices about the action they design and implement.  To this end they have developed models which seek to explain the processes which create and maintain people's theory-in-use.


Models of theories-in-use

The construction Argyris and Schon developed in order to explain theories-in-use is shown in figure 1.

Figure 1.  Model explaining the process of developing theories-in use.

Governing variables are values which the person is trying to keep within some acceptable range.  We have many governing variables.  Any action will likely impact upon a number of these variables.  Therefore any situation may trigger a trade-off among governing variables.

Action strategies are strategies used by the person to keep their governing values within the acceptable range.

These strategies will have consequences which are both intended -- those the actor believes will result -- and unintended.

An example may help to illustrate this process.  A person may have a governing variable of suppressing conflict, and one of being competent.  In any given situation she will design action strategies to keep both these governing variables within acceptable limits.  For instance, in a conflict situation she might avoid the discussion of the conflict situation and say as little as possible.  This avoidance may (she hopes) suppress the conflict, yet allow her to appear competent because she at least hasn't said anything wrong.  This strategy will have various consequences both for her and the others involved.  An intended consequence might be that the other parties will eventually give up the discussion, thereby successfully suppressing the conflict.  As she has said little, she may feel she has not left herself open to being seen as incompetent.  An unintended consequence might be that the she thinks the situation has been left unresolved and therefore likely to recur, and feels dissatisfied.

To sum up, we can see that there are a number of elements to Argyris and Schon's model which help explain how we link our thoughts and actions.  These elements are:

  1. Governing Variables (or values)
  2. Action Strategies
  3. Intended and unintended Consequences for self
  4. Intended and unintended Consequences for others
  5. Action strategy effectiveness.

In this respect Argyris and Schon's work parallels, to some extent, the work of Dick and Dalmau (1990).  They describe an 'information chain' to make sense of relationships and the information needed to resolve difficulties.  This information chain was informed to some extent by the work of Argyris and Schon, and developed to explain and inform behaviour.  The information chain is discussed here because the concepts are used in conjunction with Argyris and Schon's terminology throughout the dissertation.  It was also used as a basis for explaining concepts to participants.  The information chain and its relation to Argyris and Schon's concepts are outlined in Figure 2.

The boxed area in Figure 2 represents the part of the process which usually remains undiscussed or implicit.  It is this information about our beliefs, feelings and intentions, that is often necessary to solve relationship problems effectively.  Similarly, it is this information on beliefs, feelings and intentions which Argyris (1974) refers to as helpful in producing valid information on which to base decisions.

Argyris and Schon's terminology
Dick and Dalmau's information chain

Action strategy (of the other person)

Actions (of the other group or person)


Outcomes (what you feel obliged to do or prevented from doing)

Governing values (in use)

Beliefs (what you think the other group is trying to achieve, as well as general beliefs)

Feelings (how you sometimes feel when this happens)

Governing values (espoused)

Intentions (what you intend to do in response)

Action strategy (your own)

Reaction (what you actually do)


Outcomes (for you and others)

Figure 2.  Argyris & Schon's concepts and their
relation to Dick and Dalmau's information chain.

Adapted from Dick and Dalmau, (1990).

These conceptual frameworks have implications for our learning processes.  As mentioned previously, the consequences of an action may be intended or unintended.  When the consequences of the strategy employed are as the person intends, then there is a match between intention and outcome.  Therefore the theory-in-use is confirmed.  However, the consequences may be unintended, and more particularly they may be counterproductive to satisfying their governing values.  In this case there is a mismatch between intention and outcome.  Argyris and Schon suggest that there are two possible responses to this mismatch, and these are represented in the concept of single and double-loop learning.


Single-loop and Double-loop learning

It is suggested (Argyris, Putnam & McLain Smith, 1985) that the first response to this mismatch between intention and outcome is to search for another strategy which will satisfy the governing variables.

For example a new strategy in order to suppress conflict might be to reprimand the other people involved for wasting time, and suggest they get on with the task at hand.  This may suppress the conflict and allow feelings of competence as the fault has been laid at the feet of the other party for wasting time.  In such a case the new action strategy is used in order to satisfy the existing governing variable.  The change is in the action only, not in the governing variable itself.  Such a process is called single-loop learning.  See Figure 3.

Another possible response would be to examine and change the governing values themselves.  For example, the person might choose to critically examine the governing value of suppressing conflict.  This may lead to discarding this value and substituting a new value such as open inquiry.  The associated action strategy might be to discuss the issue openly.  Therefore in this case both the governing variable and the action strategy have changed.  This would constitute double-loop learning.  See Figure 3.

Figure 3.  Single and double-loop learning

In this sense single and double-loop learning bear close resemblance to what Watzlawick, Weakland and Fisch (1974) call First and Second Order Change.  First Order Change exists when the norms of the system remain the same and changes are made within the existing norms.  Second Order Change describes a situation where the norms of the system themselves are challenged and changed.

Double-loop learning is seen as the more effective way of making informed decisions about the way we design and implement action (Argyris, 1974).

Consequently, Argyris and Schon's approach is to focus on double-loop learning.  To this end, they developed a model that describes features of theories-in-use which either inhibit or enhance double-loop learning.  Interestingly, Argyris suggests that there is a large variability in Espoused theories and Action strategies, but almost no variability in Theories-in-use.  He suggests people may espouse a large number and variety of theories or values which they suggest guide their action.  However Argyris believes that the theories which can be deduced from peoples' action (theories-in-use) seem to fall into two categories which he labels Model I and Model II.

The governing values associated with theories-in-use can be grouped into those which inhibit double-loop learning (Model I) and those which enhance it (Model II).


Models I and II

Model I is the group which has been identified as inhibiting double-loop learning.  It has been described as being predominantly competitive and defensive (Dick & Dalmau, 1990).  The defining characteristics of Model I are summarised in Table 1.

Argyris claimed that virtually all individuals in his studies operated from theories-in-use or values consistent with Model I (Argyris et al.  1985, p.  89).  Argyris also suggests most of our social systems are Model I.  This assumption implies predictions about the kinds of strategies people will employ, and about the resulting consequences.  These predictions have been tested repeatedly by Argyris and not been disconfirmed (Argyris, 1982, Chap.  3), though I am unaware of studies by anyone other than Argyris which have tested these predictions.

Table 1.  Model I theory-in-use characteristics

The governing Values of Model I are:

  • Achieve the purpose as the actor defines it
  • Win, do not lose
  • Suppress negative feelings
  • Emphasise rationality

Primary Strategies are:

  • Control environment and task unilaterally
  • Protect self and others unilaterally

Usually operationalised by:

  • Unillustrated attributions and evaluations eg.  "You seem unmotivated"
  • Advocating courses of action which discourage inquiry eg.  "Lets not talk about the past, that's over."
  • Treating ones' own views as obviously correct
  • Making covert attributions and evaluations
  • Face-saving moves such as leaving potentially embarrassing facts unstated

Consequences include:

  • Defensive relationships
  • Low freedom of choice
  • Reduced production of valid information
  • Little public testing of ideas


Taken from Argyris, Putnam & McLain Smith (1985, p.  89).

The Model I world view is a theory of single loop learning according to Argyris and Schon.  Therefore Model I has the effect of restricting a person to single-loop learning.  Being unaware of what is driving one's behaviour may seriously inhibit the likelihood of increased effectiveness in the long-term.

Argyris (1980) suggests that (as mentioned previously) the primary action strategy of Model I is: unilateral control of the environment and task, and unilateral protection of self and others.  The underlying strategy is control over others.  Such control inhibits communication and can produce defensiveness.  Defensiveness is a mechanism used in order to protect the individual.  Model I theory-in-use informs individuals how to design and use defences unilaterally, whether to protect themselves or others, eg.  "I couldn't tell him the truth, it would hurt him too much".

In order to protect themselves individuals must distort reality.  Such distortion is usually coupled with defences which are designed to keep themselves and others unaware of their defensive reaction (Argyris, 1980).  The more people expose their thoughts and feelings the more vulnerable they become to the reactions of others.  This is particularly true if these others are programmed with Model I theory-in-use and are seeking to maximise winning.

The assertion that Model I is predominantly defensive has another ramification.  Acting defensively can be viewed as moving away from something, usually some truth about ourselves.  If our actions are driven by moving away from something then our actions are controlled and defined by whatever it is we are moving away from, not by us and what we would like to be moving towards.  Therefore our potential for growth and learning is seriously impaired.  If my behaviour is driven by my not wanting to be seen as incompetent, this may lead me to hide things from myself and others, in order to avoid feelings of incompetence.  For example, if my behaviour is driven by wanting to be competent, honest evaluation of my behaviour by myself and others would be welcome and useful.

In summary, Model I has been identified as a grouping of characteristics which inhibit double-loop learning.  Model I is seen as being predominantly defensive and competitive, and therefore unlikely to allow an honest evaluation of the actor's motives and strategies, and less likely to lead to growth.  Defensiveness protects individuals from discovering embarrassing truths about their incongruent or less-than-perfect behaviour and intentions.  The actor further protects herself by reinforcing conditions such as ambiguity and inconsistency which help to further mask their incongruence from themselves and others.  Becoming aware of this incongruence is difficult, as is doing something about it.  According to Argyris and Schon (1974) this is due to the strength of the socialisation to Model I, and the fact that the prevailing culture in most systems is Model I.  An added complication is that anyone trying to inform them of the incongruence is likely to use Model I behaviour to do so, and therefore trigger a defensive reaction (Dick and Dalmau, 1990).

Therefore, Model I theories-in-use are likely to inhibit double-loop learning for the following reasons.  Model I is characterised by unilateral control and protection, and maximising winning.  In order to maintain these, the actor is often involved in distortion of the facts, attributions and evaluations, and face-saving.  Doing such things is not something we would readily admit we involve ourselves in.  Therefore, in order to live with ourselves we put in place defences which hamper our discovery of the truth about ourselves.  If we are unwilling to admit to our motives and intentions we are hardly in a position to evaluate them.  As evaluating our governing values (which may be equated with intentions) is what characterises double-loop learning, Model I theories-in-use may be seen as inhibiting this process.

Despite all the evidence which suggests that peoples' theory-in-use is consistent with Model I, Argyris has found that most people hold espoused theories which are inconsistent with Model I.  Most people in fact, espouse Model II, according to Argyris.  The defining characteristics of Model II are summarised in Table 2.

Table 2.  Model II

The governing values of Model II include:

  • "Valid information
  • Free and informed choice
  • Internal commitment

Strategies include:

  • Sharing control
  • Participation in design and implementation of action

Operationalised by:

  • Attribution and evaluation illustrated with relatively directly observable data
  • Surfacing conflicting views
  • encouraging public testing of evaluations

Consequences should include:

  • Minimally defensive relationships
  • high freedom of choice
  • increased likelihood of double-loop learning"

No reason is offered for why most people espouse Model II, however it seems reasonable to assume that this is because Model II values are the more palatable in terms of the way we like to see our (Western) society.  Freedom of Information Acts, the Constitution, America's bill of Rights, all seem to be drawing heavily from Model II values.  Dick and Dalmau (1990) suggest that people often show a mix of Model I and Model II espoused theories.  This seems probable, as most people will readily admit to being driven to win at least in some situations.  Some professions in fact, are based almost entirely around the concept of winning and not losing, such as Law, sport and sales.

The behaviour required to satisfy the governing values of Model II though, are not opposite to that of Model I.  For instance, the opposite of being highly controlling would be to relinquish control altogether.  This is not Model II behaviour because Model II suggest bilateral control.  Relinquishing control is still unilateral, but in the other direction.  Model II combines articulateness about one's goals and advocacy of one's own position, with an invitation to others to confront one's views.  It therefore produces an outcome which is based on the most complete and valid information possible.  Therefore,

"Every significant Model II action is evaluated in terms of the degree to which it helps the individuals involved generate valid and useful information (including relevant feelings), solve the problem in a way that it remains solved, and do so without reducing the present level of problem solving effectiveness." (Argyris, 1976, p21-22)

If we go back to the information chain model put forward by Dick and Dalmau (Figure 2), valid information has to do with expressing our beliefs, feelings, and intentions (the highlighted area in Figure 2).

Given the above considerations, the consequences for learning should be an emphasis on double-loop learning, in which the basic assumptions behind views are confronted, hypotheses are tested publicly, and processes are disconfirmable, not self-sealing.  The end result should be increased effectiveness.



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Copyright (c) Liane Anderson 1995, 1997.  This document may be copied if it is not included in documents sold at a profit, and this and the following notice are included.

This document can be cited as follows:

Anderson, L.  (1997) Argyris and Schon's theory on congruence and learning [On line].  Available at


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