Socio-Cognitive Systems Learning Model

Socio-Cognitive Systems Learning Model

The phrase socio-cognitive focuses on the thought-behavior patterns that people have about themselves and

others, as social beings. The Socio-Cognitive Systems Learning Model is a diagram that compares two

systems of values, behaviors, and outcomes: (a) Model I (i.e., the dysfunctional “default” system that

perpetuates stereotyping and discrimination) and (b) Model II (i.e., the alternative, healthy, more productive

system that must be learned; Argyris, 2000, 20014, 2006a, 2006b, 2010; Argyris & Schön, 1996; Friesenborg,


Click here to view a document that depicts the Socio-Cognitive Systems Learning Model. It includes two

figures. First, look at Figure 2, the simplified version of the Socio-Cognitive Systems Learning Model. The

center row, shaded in black, shows the elements that comprise a socio-cognitive process: values, behaviors,

and outcomes. Each of these three elements is influenced by culture, which is mutually influenced by the

organization and the individual as patterns of meaning flow between them (Argyris, 2000, 20014, 2006a,

2006b, 2010; Argyris & Schön, 1996; Friesenborg, 2015; Schein, 2009). At the top of the diagram, you will

see the pattern of values, behaviors, and outcomes of the Model I process. At the bottom of the diagram, you

will see the pattern of values, behaviors, and outcomes of the Model II process (Friesenborg, 2015). Let us

look at these patterns in more detail, using both Figures 1 and 2. Figure 1 is the Socio-Cognitive Systems

Learning Model, and Figure 2 is a simplified version to use as an introduction for understanding Figure 1.

Model I: Accommodating Stereotyping and Discrimination

Take a closer look at the Model I process, the cultural default process that is typically in place unless an

intervention takes place (Friesenborg, 2015). We will also weave a general example of stereotyping and

discrimination throughout the interrelated system of Model I values, behaviors, and outcomes to demonstrate

how this system works.

Model I Values

The Model I values are self-centered. The individual espouses (or pays lip-service) to values that are

idealized by the culture, but his or her real, underlying values revolve around his or her own self-centered

desires and goals (Argyris, 2000, 20014, 2006a, 2006b, 2010; Argyris & Schön, 1996; Friesenborg, 2015).

For example, people may claim to value the cultural ideals of equality and fairness. However, their deep,

underlying values reflect their own self-centered desires and goals. Their deep, underlying values also hold

stereotypes, such as those about women, people from minority races, people in poverty, people with other

religious practices, people who are skinny, people who are overweight, people who are young, people who

are old, people perceived as beautiful, people perceived as ugly, or people from a variety of other

demographic groups. While individuals may pay lip service to equality and fairness, they are mainly

concerned with their own self-centered desires and goals, padding their egos and often comparing

themselves to those they stereotype.

Model I Behaviors

The Model I behaviors are self-centered behaviors that revolve around gaining unilateral control by competing

for recognition, accruing social capital, and either punishing or threatening people. Model I behaviors also

revolve around both blame and evasive behaviors that are designed to defend oneself. These defensive

behaviors also protect the contradiction between the real and espoused values from being analyzed. This

charade makes certain topics undiscussable (Argyris, 2000, 20014, 2006a, 2006b, 2010; Argyris & Schön,

1996; Friesenborg, 2015).

Let us continue the example described above, with people espousing equality and fairness, yet truly valuing

their own self-centered desires and goals that are justified by stereotyping other people based on their

demographic backgrounds. These Model I values are subconsciously applied through Model I behaviors.

Using this example, the stereotypes that are woven into people’s values are expressed through discriminatory

behaviors, which may be either subtle or explicit. Using the example from above, a group of people believe

themselves to be superior to people from another demographic group, so they seize unilateral control, which

they believe to be rightfully theirs. They may blame the other demographic group or avoid extending

opportunities to people of that group. Through it all, they subconsciously shroud the contradiction between

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their discriminatory actions and their espoused values about equality and fairness, making the contradiction


Model I Outcomes

A Model I system that includes stereotypical values and discriminatory behaviors results in outcomes that are

riddled with pain and frustration among those people on the receiving end of the stereotypes and

discrimination. This can lead to mistrust. People do not trust others who stereotype and discriminate against

them. This destruction of trust typically results in the escalation of problems (Argyris, 2000, 20014, 2006a,

2006b, 2010; Argyris & Schön, 1996; Friesenborg, 2015).

Single-Loop Learning

A socio-cognitive process is a cycle, a living system, and not just a snapshot in time. The people involved will

respond to the Model I outcomes by reverting to Model I behaviors, which can include seeking more unilateral

control, blaming, and using fancy footwork. Fancy footwork consists of actions that deflect blame from oneself

and often redirect blame, undermining the other party involved in the situation. Look at Figure 1, the SocioCognitive

Systems Learning Model. Single-loop learning creates a vicious cycle between Model I behaviors

and Model I outcomes, producing resistance to productive learning and change. Assumptions and values are

not tested through Model I, although the ugliness of the vicious cycle fuels the self-centered focus of the

values of each person involved (Argyris, 2000, 20014, 2006a, 2006b, 2010; Argyris & Schön, 1996;

Friesenborg, 2015).

So, how can we change if this vicious cycle fuels itself? Before we discuss interventions, we should contrast

Model I to the Model II socio-cognitive process.

Model II: Seeking to Understand People of Diverse Backgrounds

The Model II socio-cognitive process is an alternative to the Model I default.

Model II Values

Model II values are based on understanding yourself and other people. This is accomplished by

acknowledging and testing assumptions or stereotypes, both about yourself and about other people. Even the

most well-meaning of people are likely to have some inaccurate assumptions or stereotypes because it is

human nature to judge people and situations. Model II values seek to uncover these assumptions and

stereotypes, so they may be dealt with as the person seeks to understand herself or himself and other people.

Model II Behaviors

Model II behaviors are centered on dialogue as the primary means of better understanding oneself and other

people. People from diverse backgrounds are included and welcomed to participate, and the ground rules

include treating each other with respect and providing the freedom to disagree and the freedom to discuss the

undiscussable In this way, people discuss any elephants in the room. This is not a debate to prove oneself

right, but instead it is a dialogue that focuses on asking questions, listening, and observing.

First Loop of Double-Loop Learning

In contrast to Model I, Model II has two feedback loops. Also different from Model I, the Model II feedback

loops both target one’s values: “acknowledging and testing assumptions to understanding (one’s) true self

and other people” (Friesenborg, 2015, p. 9). For the first loop of double-loop learning, you use the information

and observations gleaned from the dialogue (i.e., the Model II behaviors) to better understand yourself and

others by uncovering and acknowledging stereotypes that you have held, as well as uncovering any potential

discrimination that you have practiced.

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Model II Outcomes

Through Model II, problems are typically resolved, and the people involved receive a sense of peace. Having

provided a psychologically safe environment for dialogue, they trust each other. Ultimately, Model II typically

results in productive learning and change.

Second Loop of Double-Loop Learning

With the second loop of double-loop learning, the individuals reflect on the outcomes to further inform their

values. The Model II outcomes produce a sense of wholeness, which aligns with Model II values. Unlike the

values and outcomes of Model I, Model II’s values and outcomes are congruent or complementary. If

wholeness-oriented outcomes were not achieved and the values and outcomes do not yet align, more

dialogue is needed.

Intervention: Transformative Learning from Model I to Model II

Model II is clearly the more productive thought-behavior pattern. How do we lead people from Model I to

Model II? One way to lead this change is through intervention.

An intervention is defined as a change agent’s deliberate action that is designed to replace old thoughtbehavior

patterns with new ways of thinking and behaving (Cummings & Worley, 2009). An intervention may

take a variety of forms. In this unit, we will discuss both informal and formal interventions, as well as smallscale

and large-scale approaches. Each of these forms of intervention is typically driven by ethics and by an

ethically-driven interest in generating change to help people. Below are some examples of interventions.

Individual-Level Intervention

By learning about the culture of learning organizations and how culture impacts diversity and inclusion, you

are developing an awareness of Model I and Model II patterns. As you interact with people in the organization

and you recognize Model II behaviors and outcomes, you have the opportunity to initiate a Model II feedback

loop aimed at Model II values. The feedback loop is designed to seek the perspectives of other people in

order to better understand yourself and other people. In other words, you have the opportunity to initiate

dialogue and other Model II behaviors with others with the goal of better understanding yourself and better

understanding other people. This also creates an environment for the other person to do the same. The

feedback loop makes the connection between actions and underlying values.

When you recognize Model I behaviors and outcomes among other people, you have the opportunity to

initiate Model II dialogue in order to generate a Model II feedback loop, helping other people to better

understand themselves and other people from diverse backgrounds. As you are speaking one-on-one with an

individual who is making assumptions or stereotypes about a person based on that person’s group affiliation,

you may use self-as-instrument to initiate dialogue with that person.

For example, if an individual in your organization tells a joke that fuels stereotypes or demeans people of a

particular demographic group, you might dialogue with that person to help him or her see the perspective of

people from that demographic group. As another example, a leader might make an off-hand comment that a

particular job candidate is less desirable because he or she is older or nearing retirement.

However, maybe it is not something that someone said, but it might be an observation that someone is being

excluded based on his or her membership within a particular demographic group. For example, the leadership

may decide to launch a plumb project, but the employees considered for that project may be limited to males.

Based on this observation, you would have the opportunity to discuss your observation with the leaders and

ask if there are women (or members of other under-represented groups) who might also qualify to participate

in the project.

Prompting a Model II feedback loop may be considered a small-scale intervention as you dialogue with

people to help them develop awareness of their Model I patterns and to use dialogue and other Model II

behaviors. The goal is to help people recognize the assumptions they have about people and to probe those

assumptions—by seeking to understand the perspectives of other people from diverse backgrounds—in order

to identify whether those assumptions are baseless stereotypes or whether the assumptions are valid.

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One note of caution: Be careful that you create a psychologically safe environment in order to avoid the

inclination for others to respond defensively. Also, be careful that you do not fall into Model I traps as you

seek to help others recognize their stereotypes. Your goal is not to prove them wrong or prove yourself right,

as those are actions are indicative of Model I behaviors designed to achieve unilateral control or blame.

Instead, think of yourself as a coach whose role is to ask questions in order to help people consider new

angles. In the process, you may learn more about yourself as well, and you may even realize assumptions

and stereotypes that you have held.

Intervention at the Team-Level

Organizational change may occur through either a formal or an informal intervention, led by one or more

people within the team or by an external consultant. In both cases, the leader or consultant uses self-asinstrument

to initiate change by helping people to dialogue in order to better understand themselves and other

people. Like the individual-level intervention described above, interventions at the team level also use a

Model II feedback loop to help people learn from the diverse perspectives of other people. The goal is to

create a culture that uses Model II.

Intervention at the Organization-Level

Depending on the scale of the intervention, particularly with a large team or an entire organization, you may

wish to enlist the help of an external consultant who is well-versed in transformative change through the

development of a Model II culture. The tools presented in this class may help initiate an intervention at the

individual level and among small teams.


Model II includes excellent strategies for dispelling stereotypes and abolishing discriminatory practices. Think

about how Model I and Model II apply to the examples in the Required Readings. Also, seek to recognize

examples of Model I and Model II in your own experience and think about how you might lead those

relationships from Model I to Model II, achieving productive learning and change.


Argyris, C. (2000). Flawed advice and the management trap. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Argyris, C. (2004). Reasons and rationalizations: The limits to organizational knowledge. New York, NY:

Oxford University Press.

Argyris, C. (2006a). Effective intervention activity. In J. V. Gallos (Ed.), Organization development

(pp. 158-184). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Argyris, C. (2006b). Teaching smart people to learn. In J. V. Gallos (Ed.), Organization development

(pp. 267-285). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Argyris, C. (2010). Organizational traps: Leadership, culture, organizational design. New York, NY:

Oxford University Press.

Argyris, C., & Schön, D. A. (1996). Organizational learning II: Theory, method, and practice. Reading, MA:

Addison-Wesley Publishing

Cummings, T. G., & Worley, C. G. (2009). Organization development & change. Mason, OH: South-Western

Cengage Learning.

Friesenborg, L. (2015). The culture of learning organizations: Understanding Argyris’ theory through a

Socio-Cognitive Systems Learning Model. Manuscript submitted for publication.

Schein, E. H. (2009). The corporate culture survival guide (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass

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