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Use the Argyris Technique to Make Better Hiring Decisions

You Can Improve Predictive Validity in Job Interviews.

The Holy Trinty of hiring consists of (1) resume reviews, (2) job interviews, and (3) reference checks. But the core of the trinity remains the job interview. Richard Arvey and James Campion (1982) reviewed fifteen years of research on the predictive validity of job interviews and wondered “why use of the interview persists in view of evidence of its relative low reliability, validity, and its susceptibility to bias and distortion?”

If the backbone of hiring is the job interview, the research suggests that this backbone has serious calcium deficiency.

In November, 2013 organization psychology lost one of its most creative thinkers and productive researchers with the passing of Harvard University Professor Emeritus Chris Argyris. This article honors his contributions by reviewing Argyris’ work as it relates to improving the predictive validity of job interviews.

Comparing the Structure of the Brain to a Personal Computer.

For over thirty years, the late Donald Schon of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Chris Argyris of Harvard University had been working on what they call a Theory of Action Perspective. A brief reference to some of their published books on this subject can be found at the conclusion of this article. A list of their research papers would be at least twice as long.

It is based on the following empirical observations:

There is a gap between what people say (espouse) versus what people actually do (in-use).

Sometimes actors are aware of this gap and are deliberate about it. Observers label this gap “hypocrisy.”

More often, actors are unaware of this gap. But observers continue to attribute it to “hypocrisy.”

Argyris and Schon believe we have one set of instructions in our brain that helps inform what we espouse. We have another program in our brain that instructs us what to do. The two programs do not talk to each other. To access the In Use program, one must disable the Espoused program. A useful analogy would be to think of two computer programs on a personal computer hard drive. The programs might physically exist next to each other and yet they do not communicate. To carry the computer analogy further, in the old 286 and 386 based Personal Computers, the very act of accessing one program required the disabling of other programs. For example one could run MS Word only be disabling MS Excel.

Using this perspective, Argyris and Schon concluded that what is often perceived as deliberate “hypocrisy” is actually a problem caused by the structure of the brain. Observers see the discrepancy between what is espoused versus what is done. Actors are blind to the discrepancy.

Job Interviews:

Current interview techniques only focus at the espoused level. Argyris would predict that there would indeed be a disappointing gap between what candidates say versus what they do when employed. Psychologists call this discrepancy poor predictive validity.

Chris Argyris developed a technique involving realistic vignettes that lead to decision dilemmas. A dilemma is a situation where there are two or more options. And all the options have negative consequences.

Candidates first are asked to read the vignette and to then articulate how they would solve the case. This taps into the Espoused level.

Argyris then introduced a simple tape recorder and informed the applicant that the response would be recorded. Pressing the record button has the impact of disabling the Espoused program while enabling the “In Use” program.

Single Loop versus Double Loop:

Argyris also asked us to be sensitive about the difference between a Single Loop approach to solving the issue versus a Double Loop approach.

A Single Loop response focuses on the stated problem and involves solving that stated problem. A Double Loop response raises issues about the unseen factors that caused the observed problems. One of the vignettes below is about a promoted account representative. The observable problem is what the leader is going to say to the customer. Solving that problem is a single loop response. A double loop response is to wonder why customers are loyal to specific employees and not to the company as a whole.

Constructing Dilemmas.

Two sample vignettes are provided to give you a sense of how they are constructed. The best dilemmas are work-related and timeless.

Timeless work-related dilemmas can be recycled: introducing the corporate culture to new hires, explaining the corporate culture to key stakeholders like customers, etc.

Sample Dilemma #1:

The Case of the Promoted Account Rep

In the following exercise, you will be asked to read about an actual problem that occurred in another company.

There are no right or wrong answers. We are interested in how you would deal with the problem.

You are the Marketing/Sales Director of Company A. Subordinate X is your best Account Representative but wants to move into management. Indeed, you have long been afraid that unless X is promoted you would loose this talented individual.

An opportunity has finally come about and Subordinate X is being promoted. A new Account Rep has been hired and will be assigned to Best Customer, Inc.

Best Company, Inc. is only one of 350 accounts but it represents

20% of gross sales.

Based on your past experiences with the President of Best Company, you expect the President will be very upset with Subordinate X’s departure. Subordinate X sold the product to the President. The President has mentioned that if it wasn’t for Subordinate X, Best Company would have moved to a competitor long ago. The President has mentioned that Subordinate X is far better than the Technical Support people that normally trouble shoot for your company.

You are afraid that the President might even cancel the contract when the news is delivered.

How would you deal with this issue?

1. Describe your objectives; how you intend to achieve them; why you selected those goals.

2. Describe some dialogue that you might expect to occur if you implement the action plan listed in your response to question 1.

Sample Dilemma #2:

The Case of the Corporate Discount

In the following exercise, you will be asked to read about an actual problem that occurred in another company.

There is no right or wrong answer. We are interested in how you would analyze the problem and its consequences.

You are the chief human resource officer of a company with corporate HQ along Route 128. Many of the corporate HQ employees live in Rhode Island, and some commute from as far away as New Hampshire. One third of employees work at operating divisions located in the following cities: Austin, Texas; Osaka, Japan; and Reading, UK.

An employee named A has a good friend who is President of Mass Glass. The President of Mass Glass has authorized Employee A a discount of 10% towards any eyeglasses purchased at any Mass Glass store. There are five stores in Massachusetts only. Employee A comes to you and says that the President of Mass Glass will provide a 10% discount for any employee of the company who purchases eyeglasses at a Mass Glass store. Given the costs of prescription lenses and frames, the potential savings to employees could be $15-35 per frame.

Employee A says that all you have to do is to pick up the phone and call the President of Mass Glass. If you request the discount, he will grant it to all employees of the company.

What do you say to Employee A?

1. Describe your objectives; how you intend to achieve them; why you selected those goals.

2. Describe some dialogue that you might expect to occur if you implement the action plan listed in your response to question 1.

You Can Do This:

Every job interview is a prediction about how that candidate’s performance in one artificial setting predicts future on-the-job performance over an extended period of time. The published research suggests that job interviews fail at achieving predictive validity.

Chris Argyris and Donald Schon developed a framework for explaining hypocrisy in work settings that applies well to interview situations. We have shown how you can use the Argyris Technique in your hiring process.

We use the Argyris Technique all the time when conducting retained searches. When recruiting for positions that influence the strategy of the company, we want to focus on candidates who are double loop sensitive.

Why don’t you try it out?


Argyris, Chris. REASONS AND RATIONALIZATIONS: the limits to organizational knowledge. London: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Argyris, Chris. ORGANIZATIONAL LEARNING II. Wakefield, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1996.

____. THE INDIVIDUAL AND THE ORGANIZATION: some problems of mutual adjustment. NY: Irvington, 1993.

____. KNOWLEDGE AND ACTION: a guide to overcoming barriers to organizational change. San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 1993.

____. OVERCOMING ORGANIZATIONAL DEFENSES. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1993

____. REASONING, LEARNING, AND ACTION. San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 1993.

____. ON ORGANIZATIONAL LEARNING. San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 1992


Arvey, Richard & Campion, James. “The Employment Interview: a summary and review of recent research.” PERSONNEL PSYCHOLOGY, 35,2,281-322.

Schon, Donald and Argyris, Chris. THEORY IN PRACTICE: increasing professional effectiveness. San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 1992.

Schon, Donald and Argyris, Chris. THE REFLECTIVE PRACTITIONER: how professionals think in action. NY: Basic Books, 1984.

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