Friday, April 2, 2010

Edgar Schein’s fundamental laws of organizational change

Have you witnessed old people like your parents or grandparents learning to use a new technology like the internet or mobile phone? My parents who are now in their 70s were quite reluctant to learn to use the computer until 4-5 years ago. My mother got started first. Unlike most of us, it was neither search nor email that was of interest to her. She got interested in stock trading and we got an online trading account opened for her. She didn’t have a choice but to start using the browser. The home page was set to the trading page. For my father, it happened when friends in his social circle started communicating via emails. Perhaps he felt he is losing out and then we showed him that it is not that difficult to use the email. Now both are addicted and they have moved on to other applications like reading newspaper online etc.

There is nothing unique about what my parents went through. Old habits die hard. Is there any science that explains how habits change? Edgar Schein has laid out two interesting principles that govern change in a social setting. Before we look at what those principles are, let’s understand a little more about Schein. Professor Edgar Schein is now Professor Emeritus at MIT’s Sloan School of Management where he has taught since 1956. Schein was born in Switzerland and lived in Russia and Czechoslovakia before arriving in the US at the age of 10. His seminal contribution has brought the topic of corporate culture and culture change closer to a science. Here are the first two principles of organizational change that Schein presents in Organizational culture and leadership:

  1. Principle 1: survival anxiety or guilt must be greater than learning anxiety
  2. Principle 2: Learning anxiety must be reduced rather than increasing survival anxiety.

Before understanding the principles, let’s first understand the two concepts: survival anxiety and learning anxiety. According to Schein, real change does not start to happen until the individual or organization is experiencing some real threat or some real pain. For my mother, it was a realization that until she begins to operate the online trading account, she can’t get to do what she wants. This is what he calls “survival anxiety”. Now, the prospect of learning something new also produces an anxiety. This is what Schein calls "learning anxiety". It may mean we will expose our incompetence. And then we justify that the change is not that important. Learning anxiety is the basis for resistance to change.

The first principle says that change can begin only when survival anxiety is more than the learning anxiety. Now, in an organizational setting it can be achieved in two ways. One, by increasing survival anxiety i.e. by saying – do this or else … and second, by reducing learning anxiety by creating a psychological safety net in the form of training, assurance that it is ok to fail and by providing as many options as one can.

By now, my mother has forgotten her account password a few dozen times. But now she knows that it is a matter of sending a request and you get a new password within a few days.

Related articles:

A century of systematic innovation: My favorite milestones (Part-3 1976 to 2010)

Saying “We need a culture of innovation” is mostly correct and useless

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