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Argyris' Model 1 Values


Explanations > Values > Argyris' Model 1 Values

Define goals | Maximize winnings | Suppress negative feelings | Behave rationally | So what?


Chris Argyris at Harvard has identified four common values that drive people, and has verified it across multiple cultures and countries. He calls this the Model 1 Theory-in-use to differentiate it from the more saintly Espoused Theory about which we tell other people (and ourselves). Espoused theories are usually along the lines that we are considerate, generous, intelligent and so on.

Define goals and try to achieve them

In order to acquire a sense of control we need to prove to ourselves that we can control our environment. We thus set ourselves goals (which can also be targeted at satisfying other needs) and do our best to achieve the goals.

In order to maintain our sense of control, we tend to do this unilaterally -- to include others is to risk losing control. There can be a social downside of this as our grabbing control denies it from others, thus reducing their sense of control. This can lead to social punishments and conflict. 

We get trapped by these goals when we feel that to change them would be to show that we are not as in control as we thought we were.

Maximize winnings, minimize losings

We all like to win, because this proves to ourselves that we are achieving our goals and are in control. On the other hand, if we lose, we not only do not achieve our goals, but we are seen by others as inferior and are likely to receive less support in the future (thus we lose social control--i.e. power).

Maximizing winnings also proves to others that we are powerful and that if they do not want to be losers, they should avoid coming into conflict with us. In fact they may share in our winnings (or at least bask in the reflected glory) by associating themselves with us.

Winning is often about ownership, authority and, yes, control. A common approach to gaining control over others is simply to assert our authority, becoming our own advocate. Winning (or losing) becomes a spiral as the more people ally with us, the more others will feel socially isolated and be motivated to join us.

Suppress negative feelings

There are many ways we can experience dissonance in the actions from the above approaches. There are gaps between:

  • Our espoused theory of the positive values we hold about ourselves and the Model 1 reality.
  • The goals we have defined and how well we actually achieve them.
  • What we win and what we lose (or at least do not win as well as we had intended).

These inconsistent gaps are so uncomfortable, we will tend towards avoidance and denial. To express these negative feelings would also let others know that we are not as great winners as we had at first thought.

Negative feelings can be exacerbated by this approach, as if we believe ourselves to be winners, we will set high goals, which we are unlikely to fully achieve, thus leading to further suppression.

Showing negative feelings is also associated with being a loser, and signals to others that we are not winners, not able to achieve our goals and are not in control.  

This suppression can be a collaborative action -- I won't talk about your limitations if you don't talk about mine. This is a hugely poisonous spiral that leads entire organizations into sub-optimal and dysfunctional ways of working that can eventually bring down the entire company.

Behave rationally

We all need to predict the world around us, including what other people will say and do. By definition, if others cannot predict how we will act, they will define us as irrational and hence avoid or attack us. It thus makes sense for us to at least appear rational, even if our thoughts are inconsistent.

To be rational in the eyes of others, we first need to be able to explain our own actions to ourselves. We are our own greatest judges, and only we know the truth, although having said that we do suppress negative feelings even from ourselves (although this is not an ultimately winning strategy -- the stress of suppression often comes back to bite us).

A defensive way of being rational is to judge the rationality of others, thus setting ourselves up as authorities and hence automatic winners. Blaming people and situations is to  attribute cause, which is itself a rational action.

A common way of rationally helping others suppress negativity is in face-saving. By not criticizing them in public (or even in private), we enable them not to appear as losers. This approach, which is particularly strong in many global cultures, counter-balances the tendency to blame. Where face-saving  strong, there may be special situations reserved for where honest and critical feedback may be given. In companies this typically is the annual performance appraisal process, where after months of face-saving, the criticism can come as a huge shock. 

So what?

Argyris proposes an alternative Model 2 theory, which people can adopt to counteract the ultimately self-destructive effects of Model 1:

  • Valid information, so people can gain a true understanding.
  • Free and informed choice, so people can make healthy decisions.
  • Internal commitment to the choice, so they will follow through on these decisions.
  • Constant monitoring, to make sure things stay on track and honest learning takes place.

See also

Argyris' Model 2 Governing Values, Attribution Theory, Consistency Theory, The need for a Sense of Control


Argyris, C. and Schon, D. A. (1996), Organizational Learning II, Reading, Mass: Addison Wesley


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