Learning is of two types – the first one is what is referred to as single-loop learning and the second one is referred to as double- loop learning (Chris Argyris). As the famous organizational psychologist, Chris Argyris explained, single loop learning can be compared with a thermostat that learns when it is too hot or too cold and then turns the heat on or off. The thermostat is able to perform this task because it can receive information (the temperature of the room) and therefore take corrective action. If the thermostat could question itself about whether it should be set at 68 degrees, it would be capable not only of detecting error but of questioning the underlying policies and goals as well as its own program. That is a second and more comprehensive inquiry; hence it might be called double loop learning.
Before we dive into single and double loop learning, let us fist focus on learning per se.
At any point in time when we open ourselves to learning, there are two kinds of anxieties that we confront (Edgar Schein)- one is called the learning anxiety, that is, the anxiety of learning something new which we do not know or have not tried earlier. This creates a sense of vulnerability as we are prone to fail since we would be treading on an unknown path; the second one is called the survival anxiety, without learning the new thing that we are attempting to learn our very existence in that context may be under question. This could be a learning on a new job, learning to succeed on a difficult and new goal, or for that matter anything where it is essential for us to succeed for us to be relevant in the context but something which we have never done before. Learning takes place when the survival anxiety is greater than the learning anxiety. In other words, we feel that our very existence in the present context is under question unless we learn what we are meant to learn. In that circumstance, the survival anxiety can significantly exceed the learning anxiety of feeling vulnerable to learning something new or going through the discomfort of learning something new. For instance, imagine one has got a very good job opportunity in a country where very few know the language which this person knows and this individual does not know or understand the commonly language of this country. If the job is really attractive otherwise and the individual decides to go for it, then the survival anxiety of learning the language in order to succeed would overtake the learning anxiety of learning a new language and the chances are high that the individual would end up learning. Therefore, in order for successful learning to happen, either the survival anxiety has to be increased or the learning anxiety has to be decreased so that overall the former exceeds the latter. Is it not quite common for regular smokers to give up smoking altogether post a by-pass surgery? The anxiety to survive in the world significantly outweighs the anxiety to learn without smoking.
What is true at an individual level is also true at an organizational level since organizations are nothing but an aggregation of people. There is little surprise then that successful transformation of organizations often take place when the organization is at the brink of extinction because then the survival anxiety far outweighs the learning anxiety. When the organization is doing good and everything looks fine (at least on the surface), transformation becomes that much more difficult because doing something new or differently may appear herculean in those circumstances as the anxiety to do something new (i.e. the Learning anxiety) far outweighs any existential threat (i.e. the Survival anxiety). Therefore, many change management experts often advice to create artificial crisis for successful change programs to happen. In other words, an artificial survival anxiety is induced for people to change the way they work/ organized/ processes they follow.
While theoretically, learning can happen either by increasing survival anxiety or by reducing learning anxiety, in reality it is far easier and common place for the former to happen than the latter. The examples given in the first paragraph are clear illustrations of significant increase in survival anxiety could enable an individual to learn something new. However, there is an inherent problem in the first as the very name indicates- it has to do with increasing the anxiety for learning to happen. It could never be a desirable situation to increase anxiety for whatever reasons. Therefore, it is far more desirable to reduce the learning anxiety instead of increasing the survival anxiety. Let us take an example of an organization where there is a need for employees to learn to be much more customer centric than what they are at the moment. Now, there are two options: One, they could wait while the customer base continues to decline due to lack of customer focus and ultimately the organization reaches a stage where it is staring at bankruptcy on its face and then decide to take decisive steps to significantly improve its customer focus. Assuming it is not too late, the organization may well turn around by learning to customer focused and may become successful in future. However, there are two concerns with this: first, more often than not, it could become too late before the organization actually decides to learn the new competency (in this case being customer focused) and second, even if it is not, the pain that the organization goes through often leaves a deep scar on the organization for many years thereafter, if not permanently. Second way could be to learn to be more customer focused much before the customer base has dwindled in any significant manner so as to start hurting in a big way. That necessarily would imply learning new behavior which make the organization more customer focused without any visible reason to do so. It does put all individuals in the organization in a difficult spot because each of them have to do things and behave in a very different way from what they are used to. Hence the learning anxiety at an individual and therefore at an aggregate level. Organization that successfully reduce this learning anxiety, do so by putting in place processes and systems which make this learning easier. Some of the ways in which organizations do so are (indicative and not exhaustive): (a) first and foremost, attempting and failing to adopt the new ways is not frowned upon or castigated but actually encouraged. Attempting to adopt the new behavior is certainly given a higher order of accolade than not doing anything at all and continuing with the old ways, immediate results notwithstanding; (b) second, the new set of behavior are extensively talked about by everyone from top down. People know exactly what type of behavior they are expected to learn and demonstrate and why should they change the way they have been behaving thus far; (c) the learning and demonstration of new behavior is led by example from the top- the worst in learning process happens when the senior most people refuse to learn the new behavior and everybody feels that it is people below them who should change first; (d) enabling environment, where employees can learn the new behavior in a non-threatening environment, must be created; and (e) performance management processes should explicitly and categorically emphasize the significance of learning and demonstration of the new behavior.
Having gone through the concept of learning per se, let us examine what is double-loop learning.
As mentioned right at the beginning, double loop learning is about learning from one’s experience and questioning the very bedrock of assumptions on which people behave the way they do. For double-loop learning to be successful, the organization has to be at ease with critiquing its own behavior and action and be comfortable in accepting the fact that it could make mistakes. However, the culture in many organizations inhibit double-loop learning because of the emphasis on infallibility. The fundamental and unsaid assumption is that if one is successful one cannot make mistakes! However incredibly naïve may that assumption may sound, the reality is that it is prevalent fairly widely across organizations. The litmus test for checking whether the organization actually encourages double-loop learning or not is to see whether senior members of the organization publicly acknowledge mistakes that they may have made in their judgements or not. That is not a very common thing in many organizations because the higher up one goes in the hierarchy the more infallible the person assumes he/ she is. However, when people high in the organization hierarchy openly admit mistakes that they may have made in the past and what they learnt from the same, it gives two messages down the organization: one, and the obvious one, it is fine to make mistakes as long as one learns from it; and second, everyone in the organization can make mistakes but the important thing is to learn from it instead of trying to externalize the mistake and shove the underlying issue under the carpet.
If and when an organization encourages employees to be critical of their own decisions and actions, the double-loop learning is endorsed in the organization. It breeds a culture of (i) experimenting and innovation to do new things since mistakes are not taken as an unpardonable and career- limiting sins; (ii) equally, it encourages employees to challenge the very assumptions that they had on which actions are being taken. The absence of this leads to the proverbial ostrich syndrome where employees bury their heads in the sand and assume that nothing needs to change because reasons for failure are all external and would disappear on their own. That is rarely the reality. Quite to the contrary, continuing with the same assumptions and doing the same thing again and again without challenging the assumptions can only accelerate the organization hurtling downwards. For instance, if an organization refuses to question its product portfolio and continues to pump in more and more money in advertising of the same product portfolio whereas the customer preference for that product portfolio has undergone a tectonic shift, it is unlikely to experience any improvement in its results. On the other hand, if it were to openly acknowledge the fact that the focus needs to shift to broadening or altogether changing the product portfolio, the organization may well be able to bounce back.
Organizations which are good at double-loop learning, actively encourage its employees to be self-critical. They do not tacitly encourage employees to share good news only; on the other hand, they actively encourages its employees to be vocal about their mistakes and what they learnt from it. This is in sharp contrast to organizations where there is a lot of unsaid emphasis on blowing one’s own trumpet and in the process shying away from the mistakes and valuable learning which those mistakes had the potential to teach. It is not very difficult to identify an organization where double loop learning is conspicuous by its absence- the sum of the individual contributions as enunciated by the individuals themselves would be significantly lower than the organization results. In other words, while every individual feels that she/ he is doing a brilliant job at whatever she/ he is doing without any mistakes but the results for the organization are just not fructifying!
Creating this culture is very difficult because in the short run it does impact the self-efficacy of the individuals- that is, the self-belief especially when one is used to portraying only the successes that one has had. However, the habit of being able to critique one’s own actions and decisions and being able to articulate the learning from the same can create the difference between organizations which attain sustained success by continuous improvement and those that live on past laurels and ultimately wither away.
Kinjal has over 20 years of experience and has worked with organizations like PepsiCo, ITC Infotech India Limited, Hindustan Unilever Ltd & ITC Limited. Kinjal holds a Master’s Degree, Human Resources Management/Personnel Administration from XLRI Jamshedpur.