Chris Argyris: norms of competence and justice

Single- and double-loop learning

Business and learning theorist Chris Argyris passed away last weekend. He was widely known for his model of single-loop and double-loop learning.

Numerous visualizations of this model are available online. Still, I find they often lack a couple of key features.

One is the clarity of Gareth Morgan’s interpretation, which I’ve adapted here from his book, Images of Organization.

Another is a significant detail about the nature of the assessments in steps 2 and 2a. Argyris described this process as a comparison of one’s monitoring and sensemaking (step 1) against prevailing standards and norms (single loop), a process that may then lead to a reflexive consideration of whether prevailing standards-norms are appropriate or not (double loop).

What’s generally left out of other visualizations (including Morgan’s) are the specific standards-norms against which we assess our actions. According to Argyris, these must be competence and justice. In On Organizational Learning: Second Edition, 1999, he labeled these two, along with confidence in one’s competence, as “metavalues.”


Managers are unlikely to be effective if they do not strive to increase the seamlessness between their designs for action and the actions themselves. They must be concerned about the validity of their claims. They must be concerned about the justice of the methods they use in managing.

These same metavalues are also key in the scientific community. Science requires human beings who are concerned about conducting competent research. Science thrives on scientists who are legitimately confident in their competence. Social science as an activity of inquiry will not last if social scientists are not concerned with justice.

See also: Social learning and competence.

  • Hilary 22 Nov 2013, 10:52 am

    thanks Howard –
    I particularly like the connection to Gareth Morgan’s work and the underlining of Chris Argyris’ concern for justice. May Chris RIP.

Leave a Comment