Here We Go Loopty Loop: Learning Through Introspection

Double-loop earning

Chris Argyris says, “People consistently act inconsistently, unaware of the contradiction between… the way they think they are acting and they way the really act.” This is the basis for Minding the Gap, my blog that strives to uncover what we say we want from the way we actually behave.

Evaluation is happening all around us in the workplace. We look for feedback on programs, conduct “lessons learned” meetings at the end of a project, and complete annual performance appraisals all in an attempt to determine if we are on track and identify what we can do better next time.

But when it comes to self-evaluation, looking within to see how we may have contributed to any missed opportunities, or even a complete derailment of a project, we suddenly get defensive. Argyris says this tendency is especially prevalent amid highly successful smart people. Success leads to an inability to objectively scrutinize where we may be in error. He says,

Because many professionals are almost always successful at what they do, they rarely experience failure. And because they have rarely failed, they have never learned how to learn from failure.

Argyris identifies two types of learning:

Single-loop: One-dimensional learning that provides a response based on the undesired action. For instance, a thermostat kicks in when the temperature falls below the desired (set) temperature.

Double-loop: Reflective learning where people evaluate why something went wrong. It is a root cause analysis that includes introspection.

And others have gone on to identify a third loop, which Argyris was sceptical about:

Triple-loop: Described as “double loop learning about double loop learning,” this type of learning seeks to understand the learning process itself and about our beliefs and perceptions.

To be truly introspective, to discover why we may be contributing to a problem and admit our own mistakes, takes a huge dose of vulnerability and humility. This is why it is so difficult for successful people – they don’t want to look foolish. It’s much easier (safer) to analyze the external reasons for something going wrong than to ‘fess up to our contributions.

Argyris suggests the best place to start to develop double-loop learning is through simple case studies. Here’s what it might look like:

  1. Identify a persistent issue – a real problem that needs to be dealt with.
  2. In 1-2 paragraphs, describe the situation.
  3. Write out a script of how you might discuss the situation with other stakeholders (employees, co-workers, bosses, etc.).
  4. Write out any thoughts or feelings you will likely have about others’ responses.
  5. Now you’re ready to analyze the issue and include stakeholders in the discussion.

Some things that may be discussed are group dynamics, priorities, blind spots, roles & responsibilities, and other factors that sometimes limit our ability to objectively evaluate your own behavior and biases. Introspection is not always pleasant. We like the idea of being reflective, but only when we see our overly-optimistic view of ourselves. When our motivations, limits and contributions look ugly, we want to quickly gloss over them. Having a humble and teachable spirit, an ability to see the truth about who we are but not letting that truth overwhelm and discourage us, is the key to learning the way Argyris describes it.  

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