In memoriam: Chris Argyris, authority on organizational behavior

Chris Argyris, one of the world’s leading thinkers about organizational behavior and a member of the Yale faculty for 20 years, died on Nov. 16. He was 90 years old.

Chris Argyris at the 2011 Yale Commencement ceremony where he was awarded an honorary Doctor of Social Science degree.
Chris Argyris at the 2011 Yale Commencement ceremony where he was awarded an honorary Doctor of Social Science degree.

Argyris influenced generations of business leaders, fellow scholars, and students. He was instrumental in the creation of the Yale School of Management and has been honored at Yale with an endowed faculty position established in his name, currently held by President Peter Salovey. In 2011, Yale awarded Argyris an honorary Doctor of Social Science degree.

“Chris Argyris was a friend, colleague, and prolific scholar who made enormous contributions to our understanding of the psychological processes underlying effective learning by organizations and those who work in them,” said Victor H. Vroom, the BearingPoint Professor of Management and Professor of Psychology at the Yale School of Management.

Born and raised in New Jersey, Argyris served in the U.S. Army Signal Corps during World War II, achieving the rank of second lieutenant. Following the war, he completed a bachelor’s degree in psychology at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, and a master’s degree in economics and psychology at the University of Kansas. His doctoral work at Cornell University focused on organizational behavior. Upon completion of his doctorate, he joined the Yale faculty in 1951, serving as the Beach Professor of Administrative Sciences and also as chair of the Administrative Sciences Department. In 1971 he moved to Harvard and was appointed the James Bryant Conant Professor of Education and Organizational Behavior.

Early in his academic career, Argyris studied the impact of organizational systems on individuals. His books “Personality and Organization” (1957) and “Integrating the Individual and the Organization” (1964) focused on the effect of formal organizational structures, control systems, and management, and how individuals respond and adapt to them. His next major area of study was organizational change, including how senior executives help bring about change, and the role of the social scientist as both researcher and actor. His books — including “Interpersonal Competence and Organizational Effectiveness” (1962) and “Organization and Innovation” (1965) — reflect his work in these areas.

Argyris is perhaps best known for his work, with Donald Schön, on how people make decisions, explain their actions, and learn from their experiences. By articulating the concept of “theories of action,” Argyris and his colleague proposed the idea that people operate from a “theory in use” (what they actually do) that truly governs their behavior, rather than their “espoused theory” (what they say they mean and believe). This theoretical approach, along with the concept of reflection in action and his explication of single- and double-loop learning, explores individual and organizational learning, and the ways that human reasoning becomes that basis for diagnosis, decisionmaking, action, and change. These seminal ideas were presented in several coauthored books: “Theory in Practice” (1974), “Organizational Learning” (1978), and “Organizational Learning II” (1996). He also explored these ideas in “Overcoming Organizational Defenses: Facilitating Organizational Learning” (1990) and “Knowledge for Action: A Guide to Overcoming Barriers to Organizational Change” (1993).

“In his approach to management consulting, Chris Argyris comes closer to a psychotherapist, who helps clients become aware of the discrepancy between their actions and their goals and thus works closely with the client in creating workable solutions,” said Vroom. “This represents a sharp contrast with the typical management consultant who collects data from the organization, uses sophisticated analytical methods to process the data, and writes a report containing recommendations for change.”

Argyris is survived by his wife of 63 years, Renee; his children, Dianne and Phillip; and his brother Peter.

Share this with Facebook Share this with Twitter Share this with LinkedIn Share this with Email Print this