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Navigating Leadership Challenges: The Art of Double-Loop Learning in a Fast-Paced Business World

Audrey O’Sullivan is a practising solicitor and acts as General Counsel, to SIRO DAC.  As a member of the SIRO leadership team, working in a fast paced ever changing business environment, the art of asking good questions is paramount.  This practice keeps business moving, while ensuring the parameters of tolerable commercial risk are appreciated.  It speaks to good risk management.  SIRO is a wholesale provider of world class, super-fast, high-quality broadband, deploying future proofed fibre technology across Ireland.   Audrey is completing an MSc in Leadership Development with Smurfit Executive Development and is an accredited EMCC Business and Executive Coach practitioner.

Thought leadership:

I have been reading an article recently, by Chris Argyris ‘Teaching Smart People How to Learn’.  The author writes about the value of double-loop thinking, for business.   And he explains how high performing individuals can struggle with double loop reflexive learning (how our thoughts and feelings can influence what we do). (Argyris being the former American business theorist and Professor Emeritus of Harvard Business School).

Single Loop learning:

Single-loop thinking and learning is associated with problem solving. A process of looking outwards.  It is something we do every day.  Something mechanical.  Perfunctory.  By way of analogy, this is akin to a thermostat that automatically switches on air conditioning when the heat in a room gets above 30 degrees. The process is automatic. Non reflective.

Double Loop learning:

By contrast, Double loop thinking and learning involves standing back.  This approach questions and explores whether the level at which the air conditioning comes on (at 30 degrees) is the right level (in the present), or whether or not some other trigger might be more efficient.  Double loop learning involves a questioning of base assumptions.  It requires a process of looking inwards. This involves emotional intelligence.  Genuine learning occurs with this additional step of questioning, exploration, and testing.  This step involves the ability of individuals or teams to think and reflect and it involves an open mindset.  It involves an ability to receive challenge, to evaluate and update our thinking,  or hypotheses and recommendations we make, vital for key business go-no-go decisions.

Curiously, Argyris explains that high performing individuals, knowledge workers of today, including management consultants, financiers, accountants, lawyers, engineers, and others often resist or defend against a double-loop learning spotlight being placed on them and their reasoning.  As a practising lawyer (and executive coach) I am curious about this.   As an advocate it’s normal to ask questions of others and of myself to achieve good outcomes.  Significantly, this act of questioning, is not a form of mistrust or an invasion of privacy of the other (Argyris) although for experts in their field, it might feel like that.  In fact, healthy genuine challenges, debate, and reflection are qualities needed to promote new ideas, innovation, creativity.   The art of good questioning affords a valuable learning opportunity for all involved.

Defensive reasoning:

Argyris, recognised, that the testing of assumptions of others, however, can produce a form of defensive reasoning in the minds of high performing individuals, which is not useful for a company.  In business transactions this is due, he claims: to a desire to be in control; or to maximise winning and minimise losing; or the belief that negative feelings should be suppressed; or  a desire to appear extremely rational.  Defensive reasoning is triggered by challenges to our views which touch upon our beliefs.  We wish to avoid any threat to our identities, or a view of ourselves as being less than competent experts.  This is in effect ‘closed loop’ reasoning as in reality, we all make mistakes.  However, ‘to cling to a wrong idea for the sake of “credibility” is the height of self-orientation because it is all about us and not at all about the facts’ writes David Maister, in his book ‘The Trusted Advisor’.

Double-loop learning is a reflexive process which looks at the rules and reasoning we use, which influences our pattern of behaving.

The higher you go Double loop learning provides us with an effective leadership tool. 

Productive reasoning on the other hand, demonstrates a willingness to examine one’s own role in any difficulties in a project.  That I need to be open to criticism and willing to publicly have my assumptions tested against the further evidence and experience of others.  As a ground rule, I have relevant information and others also have relevant information and each of us may see things the other does not.  This can require a single loop problem solving approach to adapt as double-loop learning recognises that how a problem is defined and solved can be part of the solution.


In summary, Double-Loop learning is a useful leadership skill to i) reflect on assumptions more openly and ii) test the validity of hypotheses rather than cling to ideas.  This can be the difference maker between being great and near great, between the gold and settling for bronze, as Marshall Goldsmith suggests.  The higher you go Double loop learning provides us with an effective leadership tool.  And, ‘when senior managers are trained in new productive reasoning skills, they can have a big [positive] impact on the performance of the entire organisation (Argyris).