Leadership development programming today is largely concerned with the skills of growing leaders.  Invista Performance Solutions delivers hundreds of hours of training per year that shape the behaviors and methods of leaders.  They learn how to manage performance, solve problems, coach others, handle conflict, provide feedback, delegate, build a team, and many other techniques.  We offer rich interactive content and great facilitation on this—what is known as horizontal leadership development.

But it is not enough.

To truly support the growth of leaders, we cannot stop with developing only new skills and behaviors; real growth requires new mindsets and mental models that help leaders rethink the way they act, behave, and make decisions.  Double loop learning processes are a truly effective development strategy aimed at this vertical leadership development goal.

Leading is about transformation. The intent of double-loop learning is also transformation; the transformation of deeply held perspectives of the world in which we work and act. Double-loop learning can be viewed as a distinctive educational strategy that contains high-level potential to shift the perceptions of our learners. (Cartwright 68)

The process of double loop learning is largely about dialog and communication.  The facilitator challenges participants with questions and discussions designed to uncover deeply held beliefs and values.  It presses learners to rethink assumptions.  The guided discussions may focus on how effective or ineffective previous mindsets or standards were in creating an effective organization, or furthering productive relationships.

Let’s consider how double loop learning impacts the creation and sustainment of a diverse and inclusive work environment.

Most leaders already believe they are acting in ways that are inclusive and respect diversity, but are they?  There are daily publicly displayed examples of people not feeling included, not feeling respected, and feeling singled out because of how they identify.  More work needs to be done to close the gap between leaders’ self-perception and others’ perception.

In the double loop model, leaders need to be challenged on not only the communication methods they employ and how they react to others, but the very assumptions they have about the audience with whom they communicate.

This means our training must focus on moving from implicit and unchallenged assumptions to explicitly identifying and questioning those underlying assumptions in light of our results and consequences.  “Does what I say match what I do and my underlying values?  If not, what does that mean and how does it affect how I should interact with others and do my job?”

In the training, participants are able to deal with double-loop problems that require dealing with their own defenses as human beings.  When participants want to react or have reacted in a situation, they are able to ask themselves, “Is this the way I always respond, and if so, how has it worked?”  If their reaction has not worked, they have the opportunity to consider it from a different perspective or view of the situation.

Most importantly, after an interaction or event that might have gone better, true and honest dialogue, either with self or others, needs to occur though it often does not.  It is dismissed as a one-time occurrence or someone or something else is found to blame.  Worse yet, if nothing is said, no conversation occurs and those involved are robbed of the opportunity to examine the event to look for double-loop moments.  In any work environment, there is and should be a strong bond between employees, which works both for and against them.  Adopting the practice of exploration of uncomfortable topics not usually discussed enhances trust among the employees and builds bridges with people outside the agency with whom they interact.  Our goal is to create a safe environment for participants to explore those areas where words don’t match actions.

The results of successful double-loop learning and the process of dialogue that accompanies it can, however, be well worth the challenge. This kind of inquiry can lead to experimentation with new designs and new actions, which in turn can lead to further new designs and actions when learning to lead. Double-loop learning allows the educator to create opportunities, opportunities for people to understand the need to rethink why they lead and how they lead. (Cartwright 71)

Invista Performance Solutions would be happy to set up an opportunity for you to meet one of our expert facilitators to learn more about how we employ double loop learning.  Together we can effectively move your leaders both horizontally and vertically along the development path. Contact us here today for a consultation.


Cartwright, Sharon. “Double-Loop Learning: A Concept and Process for Leadership Educators” Journal of Leadership Education, Volume 1, Issue 1 – Summer 2002, pp. 68-71.

For other resources, see here: http://www.journalofleadershiped.org/attachments/article/18/JOLE_1_1_Cartright.pdf