a social psychologist who bridged the academic and pragmatic sides of culture and organization by practicing his own principles of humble leadership and inquiry, died January 26. He is 94 years old.
Schein, who was a Society of Sloan Fellows professor emeritus of management at MIT Sloan, joined the school in 1956, when it was still known as the MIT Industrial Management School. During his 67-year tenure, Schein wrote dozens of books on social science subjects including career dynamics, organizational culture, group dynamics, and interpersonal interactions. The three-level model of organizational culture and its writings on relationships and trust are still used by managers today.
“Most people are one of them: They are either big thinkers and they either have these big theories, or they do additional research and work to understand phenomena better,” says Douglas (Tim) Hall, PhD ’66, a professor emeritus of management and organization at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business. “Ed can do both. I can’t think of anyone else who has the reach he has.
Here are five of Schein’s most enduring ideas:
1. Forceful persuasion
Schein was born in Zurich, on March 5, 1928. He came to America in 1938 and in the early 1950s entered the US Army’s clinical psychology program. After earning his PhD in social psychology from Harvard University in 1952, he served in the army until 1956. During his service, Schein interviewed American prisoners of war about indoctrination efforts by Chinese kidnappers who fought on behalf of North Korea during the Korean War.
In a 2012 interview with the University of Indiana’s Tobias Leadership Center, Schein said talking to former prisoners of war led him to the concept of coercive persuasion.
“I found in that setting and then in another setting that if I physically catch you I can influence you if I want. That goes for prisoners of war, but the same goes for gold cuffs,” said Schein. “If I am economically committed to [an] institutions, I have tenure, I will allow myself – or be forced – to socialize into their culture. There’s no point in being rebellious or deviant if I’m stuck there. If I get stuck in there, sooner or later I will be affected.”
2. Anchor and career dynamics
What motivates a person to work? What are the central values that drive a person’s career? How do employees want to be managed or rewarded? The answers to these questions determine the anchor of one’s career.
Career anchors, Schein wrote in a 1974 report, are “motivational/attitude/value syndromes that guide and limit an individual’s career.”
Schein initially identified five career anchors but later added three more. The eight anchors are general managerial competence, technical/functional competence, entrepreneurial creativity, autonomy/independence, security/stability, service/dedication to goals, genuine challenge, and lifestyle.
“On the other hand, [a career] anchored in a set of job descriptions and organizational norms regarding the rights and obligations of a given position within an organization,” Schein wrote. On the other hand, careers are anchored in a set of needs and motives that the occupant of the career seeks to satisfy through the work he does and the rewards he gets for that work – money, prestige, organizational membership, challenging work, freedom. , etc.”
Schein collaborated on career issues with MIT Sloan’sprofessor emeritus of organizational studies, and MIT professor emeritus SloanThat work inspired the creation of the careers division at the Academy of Management.
3. Organizational culture
For Jennifer Chatman, professor of management at the University of California, Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, Schein’s work on defining organizational culture was groundbreaking. Schein “brought a level of discipline and precision” to a concept unsuitable for focused study, said Chatman, co-founder and co-director of the Berkeley Cultural Center. The center hosts an annual conference that includes student prizes named after Schein.
Originally published in 1985, Schein’s book “Organizational Culture and Leadership” proposed that organizational culture can be analyzed at three levels. He outlines these levels in his Sloan Management Review:
- Artifact. The built environment of an organization, including architecture, technology, office layout, dress codes, visible or audible patterns of behavior, and public documents such as employee orientation handbooks.
- Mark. Reasons and/or rationalizations why members behave the way they do in an organization.
- Assumption. Usually subconscious patterns that determine how group members perceive, think, and feel.
senior lecturer at MIT Sloanwho teaches about work culture and toxic environments, says Schein’s work reveals “deeply held assumptions and values that lie below the waterline but deeply shape everyday behavior.”
4. Inquiry and humble leadership
MIT Sloan’s Van Maanen remembers Schein as passionate but also kind and polite, with a reserved demeanor; he didn’t push.
“He was an imaginative listener who could literally break up a conversation with the right questions at the right time,” says Van Maanen. “That’s Ed’s modus operandi: listen very carefully.”
That concept of careful listening is a fundamental part of Schein’s writings on helpfulness and humble inquiry.
According to Schein, self-assertive inquiry is the art of attracting someone by asking questions you don’t know the answers to, thereby building a relationship based on curiosity and interest in the other person.
It’s the highest-ranking leaders who need to learn these skills the most, he believes.
“Our culture emphasizes that leaders must be wiser, set direction, and articulate values, all of which make them more likely to tell than to ask,” Schein wrote in his book “Humble Inquiry.” “However, it is leaders who most need humble inquiry, as complex interdependent tasks will require building positive, trusting relationships with subordinates to facilitate good upward communication.”
5. Organizational changes
Schein developed a method for consciously changing culture in an organization, and within that method he identified the tools available to leaders for effecting change, including:
- What the leader regularly focuses on, measures, rewards, and controls.
- How leaders distribute resources and rewards.
- Criteria used for recruitment and retention, performance management, and firing.
Schein understands that organizational change goes beneath the surface, says Chatman of UC Berkeley. Organizations want their employees to work toward a collective goal, but if leaders aren’t seeing the desired results, they can’t just issue decrees and expect things to change.
“In this sense, he has this holistic view of the organization that you can’t just change the incentive system, or you can’t just ask leaders to tell people to do things differently,” says Chatman. “You have to look at all of these touch points so you can drive holistic change that makes sense for people.”