Thursday, April 27, 2023

4 quotes from Prof Edgar Schein that are stuck with me


Prof Edgar Schein passed away on January 26 at the age of 94. His son and collaborator Peter Schein wrote, “He and I had just finished a work gig at about 5p and were chatting after and a few hours after that he passed away peacefully, no pain, no illness, no hospitalization. As he wanted it.”

Ed Schein’s work had a huge influence on my consulting career – both in the area of culture of innovation and my consulting style. It is no surprise that I have quoted him in sixteen of my blogs since 2008. Many of them were on topics that I found interesting in his books, articles, and interviews. As I added more areas of study like design thinking and mindfulness, I realized I had something to learn from Schein in each of them. In this article, I present 4 quotes from Ed Schein that are stuck with me.

Observation is an intervention: Schein says, “If I go into an organization to observe something, my presence there, what questions I ask, and everything I do is an intervention in that organization’s life.” And adds, “The notion that I can go there and ‘gather data in order to plan an intervention later’ is, I now realize, one of the most nonsensical ideas in the field of consulting.”[1] I have illustrated this in my blog Where does intervention begin? Story of Dr Kiran Bedi’s first day at Tihar Jail (2010).

Changing culture is a misnomer: Schein says, “I think changing culture is a misnomer. You change people’s behaviour, and you may eventually influence their beliefs,” he adds, “If you define culture as a common learned response, then it changes with success. If you impose a new way of doing things, and people try it and it works, then slowly they build a new culture.” [2] I wrote about this topic in my blog – Saying “We need a culture of innovation” is mostly correct and useless (2009).

Focus more on process than on content: When I am in a meeting arguing with a colleague, I may be focused on his argument and my counter-argument. That is the content of the conversation. Schein suggests that I should focus more on the process [3]. For example, can I observe the process of communication, “I am trying to compete with my colleague and showing to others that I am brighter and smarter?” This may lead to a reflection, “Why am I arguing here? Is it possible to appreciate the other person’s point and build a relationship that might lead to a better solution?” Focus on process involves observing how anxieties such as losing an argument and aspirations about one’s career are driving the thinking and behaviour. I wrote about this in – 3 tips on being mindful in the corporate world: An Edgar Schein perspective (2019). Another way Schein puts this is, “Listening to the other is secondary to listening to the self.” [4]

There is no “real problem”, only a set of worries: In the final chapter titled “Concluding comments – some final thoughts on how to be really helpful” of the book “Humble consulting: how to provide real help faster” Schein mentions the following: “To be really helpful requires locating what the real problem is, that is, what is worrying the client while accepting the fact that there is no ‘real problem,’ only a set of worries that may be all over the map. To locate what is worrying the client requires open and trusting communication between client and helper. The client has to feel secure enough to reveal what is personally bothering him or her.” [5] I wrote about this in the blog “My 3 takeaways from Edgar Schein’s Humble consulting” (2016)

In one of the online webinars in May 2021 when asked for final words, Ed asked this question, “Can we get to level-two relationships (i.e. beyond transactional) among countries and among larger units to develop ways of saving the planet and thereby saving ourselves?”

For someone like me who got to know about Ed and his thoughts only through books and interviews Ed’s passing away does not change much. It is such a joy to read/listen to Ed. Thank you, Ed.


[1] James Campbell Quick, “The next frontier: Edgar Schein on organizational therapy”, The Academy of Management Executive: Feb 2000, page 32.

[2] Tony Manning talks to Edgar Schain, May 2004.

[3] “Humble leadership: Edgar Schein: talks at Google”, interview by Karen May at Google, Feb 2, 2016 (Ed’s quote is at 18:50).

[4] James Campbell Quick, “The next frontier: Edgar Schein on organizational therapy”, The Academy of Management Executive: Feb 2000, page 32.

[5] Edgar Schein, “Humble consulting: how to provide real help faster,” Berrett-Koehler, 2016.

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