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Interview with Edgar Schein about Organizational Culture

Dr. Edgar Schein is one of the most prominent organizational development figureheads alive. He earned his Ph.D. in social psychology from Harvard University and went on to teach at the MIT Sloan School of Management reaching Professor Emeritus distinction. Along with numerous academic publications, Dr. Schein has a long list of books that cover various organizational topics such as group process consultation, career development, and of course, organizational culture. His titles include Organizational Culture and Leadership, Helping, Career Anchors and Humble Inquiry.


1) You have stated recently that the concepts of organizational culture that are often disseminated from your original work on culture need to now be viewed differently. What is one of the biggest misconceptions — regarding the way your work is used today — that you would like to see better aligned with our current understanding of organizational culture?

From the beginning, I have argued that culture covers everything a group learns in its evolution. That includes external understanding of the environment so that you can survive and grow. Internally, that includes figuring out how to get along. I think today’s usage of the word culture is almost exclusively number two. It’s discussed in terms of workplace culture and how to get better engagement; how to get people to work in teams; how to be more service oriented. People use the word, culture, as almost exclusively geared at how to make employees happier and behave differently according to some notion of what management thinks might be better. What gets ignored is the role of culture in defining strategy, and mission, and how we’re going to get organized. All these concepts are also part of culture, and they are almost never really referred to now in most of the current, popular managerial literature.

2) Few (if any) would question the merit of your ideas around leaders needing to be more helpful and the concepts of humble inquiry. In environments that are inherently fast-paced (ex. medicine) what are a couple useful strategies to utilize these methods where time is scarce? 

One misconception is that humble inquiry is a slow, tedious and long-running process. I can see how it could easily be interpreted that way. But, my experience has been that, if a leader — whether it’s a doctor or whoever — who has time constraints, still wants to be a humble inquirer, you can do that by being more personal. So, my best example is, I’ve recently talked to several doctors and they complained bitterly about the degree to which they only have a few minutes with a patient because of all the other stuff they have to do. So, recently, whenever I’ve been with a doctor and we get into this discussion I coach them to lean over, touch the patient on the shoulder, and say in effect to this person, “As you may know, in the present system, I only have ten minutes. So, let’s make those ten minutes count.” My hunch is that, if you say something like that, it would immediately relieve some of the pressure and would enable both of them to be more open and personal — saying what’s really on their mind. So, it’s use of time, rather than the absolute amount of time that I think makes the difference. What I want to teach leaders is to see how they can very quickly personalize their relationship with their subordinate, or client. When successful, what then transpires is good, open communication rather than a formal dance of do I trust the other person, etc., etc. That may take a lot of time in some instances, but there’s nothing arbitrary that says it’s got to take at least an hour, or a day, or whatever. It’s really how you do it that matters.

3) Previewing my own research a bit, I have found during the process of my dissertation — contrary to popular advice that effective workplace wellness requires leadership actively architect “positive” company culture — successful wellness programs in small to mid-size businesses flourish when leadership is not evolved. Successful programs instead seemingly share the commonality of beginning as an internal well-being movement, spearheaded by (what is perceived as) a neutral advocate. You have discussed previously that “concepts” do not have cultures, groups do. A working theory of mine (in this context) is that well-being is better supported by an organization when employees do not feel coerced by tactics pushing them towards a preconceived definition of “wellness.” If that’s true, are there any tactics leadership can use to inspire a healthy culture other than giving this cohort autonomy?

The leader doesn’t have to participate, but they have to believe that whatever is going on at that middle level is worthy of support. So the distinction you have to make is not that leaders have to be involved, but that leaders have to be aware of what’s going on and be supportive. I can give you lots of examples of that. An interesting example (in regards to your question) would be, if you found some middle-level-generated programs that succeed where the leader is indifferent.

There are a lot of touch-feely programs out there. The leader comes in and discovers for the first time you are engaging in one of these type of programs and says, “What? You’re meeting in this group? No more of that.” There are plenty of examples where good programs are being killed that way. The problem is that middle managers and/or their staff do not explain well enough to leaders what they were actually doing. If they learn that the employees really like this stuff, they are generally not going to kill it — unless it really violates some of their own assumptions about what employees should be doing. The programs that I’ve seen killed, for example, are where employees will get into a T-group program sponsored by HR, and then an executive takes notice and sees them engaging in various kinds of emotionally charged feedback activities. The executive gets horrified, and says, “Who launched this program? I’m not going to have any more of that in my company.” That’s the kind of thing that can happen if leaders aren’t well-oriented to what the program will actually involve.

4) In your extensive look at the role culture plays within organizations, what are your thoughts on the impact culture can have on influencing and/or impacting personal well-being (outside of what we discuss above)?

My basic view is that culture covers everything that goes on in the organization unless it’s a brand-new organization and no culture is yet formed. But, assuming that the group or the company has some history, the culture will determine both what people regard to be the right way to work and how to feel about it. So, you can have a culture, which we used to have a lot of in the auto industry and so on, where what the person expects is a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay. As long as I get my pay and I have reasonable working conditions, I don’t expect my company to make me happy. I expect my company to give me a living. And, if that’s the cultural norm, as it was in many organizations in the past, then you can’t say this is a bad culture because employees aren’t happy. It is what it is and employees have accepted it. Now, what seems to have happened is, in the last 25 years, is employees are beginning to say, “A fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay isn’t good enough for me. If I spend all this time at work, I want to feel better.” That spawned organizations like Great Place to Work. Organizations like Great Place to Work make their money because a lot of employees think this stuff makes a difference. They believe, “How I feel at work is important.” If the boss gets concerned and says, “Gee, I want to be an organization that makes my employees happy because there’s some evidence, at least in some industries, that safety and quality actually is better if employees feel healthier and happier.” There’s enough research now that bosses are beginning to believe that this is real. So, suddenly, they want to change their culture. But, if they’ve spent 25 years building a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work kind of culture, you can’t just now say, “OK. I’m going to bring in a couple of consultants and we’ll create a healthy culture.” It doesn’t work that way because you’ve trained all your supervisors and all your managers to be impersonal, and bureaucratic, and that’s the way the place has worked forever. So, now suddenly, you discover the employees aren’t happy… so what are you doing to do? Well, you might from the very top have to start treating your own subordinates differently because your own subordinates are also part of that cultural system. So, when people say, “I now want healthy and happy employees,” they generally don’t realize that whether or not they can get there depends very much on the culture that’s already there, the culture they have built over however many generations. Therefore, they can slowly begin to evolve their culture in a new direction, but that also means changing your reward system, changing the way people are managed, changing all the fundamentals of the organization.

5) You have recently focused some of your work around humble consulting looking at intimacy as it applies to working relationships. Sheryl Sandberg has discussed that it is the fear of perceived intimacy that holds men back from creating strong professional bonds with female counterparts. Have you unearthed anything in your recent work that might mitigate this risk (other than common sense)?

When my Humble Consulting book comes out, which will be shortly, you will see that I make a big distinction between three levels of relationship. One is sort of the bureaucratic “stranger” relationship. Level two is what I’m calling a more “personal” relationship. Then, level three is what I’m calling “intimate” relationships. So, the question is, are we using intimate in the same way as Sheryl Sandberg? I’m arguing that level two relationships, which are always appropriate, is what you would call a personal relationship. I know you as a whole person… I am responding to you as a whole person. The question of what is appropriate in the workplace between men and women, I think it’s totally appropriate for both to get more personal around the tasks that they have to perform. But, that should not imply they need any more intimacy, sexual or otherwise.

The definition of intimate becomes crucial in this discussion. In U.S. culture, one might think that the word immediately implies this deeper male-female kind of stuff. And, that would certainly be a misuse of a working relationship. Therapists and lawyers aren’t supposed to be intimate with their patients and clients, but they can be very personal in how they structure the relationship so that good information and trust is built up. So, that’s the distinction, but I cannot specifically answer this question because I do not know how Sandberg has defined the word for her work.

The trick is to be aware that society’s rules always apply. What society decides as inappropriate intimacy applies across the board. You can’t say, “Well, in my company, we’re going to use different rules.” The key is for you, or me, or anybody to play by cultural rules because those rules apply to all these situations. Then, within that say, “Okay. I can’t be intimate, but as a boss I can sure have a better relationship with my subordinates by at least getting more personal.”