These interviews took place on October 25, 2012, in Denver, Colorado, at the annual meeting of the International Leadership Association.Learn more about Edgar Schein
Part oneSkip to next interview transcript
SCARPINO: Today is Thursday, October 25, 2012. My name is Phillip Scarpino, Professor of History and Director of Oral History for the Randall L. Tobias Center for Leadership Excellence, located at Indiana University–Purdue University, Indianapolis. I have the privilege to be interviewing Dr. Edgar Schein in a suite in the Hyatt Hotel in Denver, Colorado. I’m conducting this interview with Dr. Schein on behalf of the International Leadership Association and the Randall L. Tobias Center for Leadership Excellence. We will place a significant biographical summary of Dr. Schein’s career with the transcription of this interview, so I’ll only mention a few of the highlights in this introduction. He received his PhD in Social Psychology from Harvard in 1952, served as a Captain in the U.S. Army from 1952 to 1956. While serving in the U.S. Army he was Chief of the Social Psychology section of the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, which, among other things, worked with repatriated US service personnel who had been captured and subjected to brainwashing by the Chinese during the Korean War. He joined MIT Sloan School of Management in 1956, promoted to Professor of Organizational Psychology and Management at MIT in 1964. MIT named him the Sloan Fellows Professor of Management in 1978, a chair he held until 1990. He retired in 2006 and is currently professor emeritus. Dr. Schein’s work has had a tremendous impact on the field of organizational development, in areas such as career development, group process consultation and organizational culture. He is the founding editor of Reflections and his curriculum vitae lists 179 publications spanning a period from 1954 to 2010, including 14 books. Among his many honors and awards, he is a recipient of the International Leadership Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award. So, as promised ahead of time, Ed, I’d like to ask your permission to do the following: to record this interview, to have this interview transcribed, to deposit the recording of the transcription in the Archives and Special Collections at Indiana University/Purdue University, Indianapolis, for the use of our patrons, and deposit the recording and transcription with the Tobias Center and the International Leadership Association, for their use and the use of their patrons. Can I have your permission to do that?
SCHEIN: Yes. You have my permission. That’s fine.
SCARPINO: Okay. Thank you. Now, we’ll get down to business and we’ll start with an easy question. When and where were you born?
SCHEIN: Well, that will turn out to be complicated.
SCARPINO: I’m going to make it more complicated in a minute.
SCHEIN: I was born in Zurich, Switzerland, on March 5, 1928.
SCARPINO: Native language German?
SCHEIN: Native language was German.
SCARPINO: So I have a rather long introduction to my next question because I want to spend some time talking about your youth, and see if we can connect that up to a bigger picture. So you were kind enough to share with me a draft of an autobiography you are writing, with a draft title, Right Place, Right Time. I read it and on page one you said, “I believe that the early experiences over which I had no control did play a significant role in shaping me and leading me to the kind of work I ended up doing.” Then, last year in October, I had a pleasure of interviewing Manfred Kets de Vries at the International Leadership Association Meeting in London, and I read an article that he published called, The Leadership Mystique, in which he said the following, and then I’m going to ask you to respond to this. He said, “All of us possess some kind of an inner theater and are strongly motivated by a specific inner script, over time through interactions with caretakers, teachers, and other influential people, this inner theater develops. Our inner theater in which the patterns that underlie our character come into play influences our behavior throughout our lives and plays an essential role in the molding of leaders.” So if we use his term, inner theater, can you tell me about your own inner theater, or about the early experiences and individuals that shaped your character and the person you became?
SCHEIN: I can try, but I think the reason I wrote the autobiography is to really explore that question in some detail, myself, and the answer is that these influences, I think, occurred at various times over a longer period. I don’t think my childhood was decisive. I think there were a number of points, some in childhood, some later, that created this inner theater. But to this day, I think I’m still working on figuring out what it really is.
SCARPINO: Can you put your finger on some of those points in your childhood that you could at least tentatively offer some conclusions about?
SCHEIN: I think it was significant that I was an only child. It was significant that my father was a physicist who, because of various circumstances, had to leave Switzerland, so at age six I went to Russia to learn a new language and a new way of living. Three years after that, we left Russia and I spent a year in Czechoslovakia and learned some Czech. Then in 1938, came to the U.S. and, for the first time, learned some English, and at that point, learned how to be an American. So I think one could argue that one bit of this inner theater is that there were a lot of scene changes between age zero and 10.
SCARPINO: Quite a few. Why do you think it was significant that you were an only child?
SCHEIN: Well, because I think I got excessive attention from my parents, both positive and negative. I think I was constantly praised and rewarded and made to feel special and all that stuff that goes with loving parents. But I also had a very Germanic mother who, unpredictably punished me at various times. I think the reaction to authority, and I called it in my autobiography being something of a scaredy-cat, was created early by a somewhat unpredictable, punishing German mother, who at the same time praised me to the skies.
SCARPINO: That’s interesting. So do you think that the fact that you went on to an adult career, in which any reasonable person would characterize as astonishingly productive, that was related to the expectations and rewards and punishments from your parents?
SCHEIN: Definitely, because even I can remember in those early years traveling. My parents thought I ought to be writing about it. They were very encouraging of creative activity.
SCARPINO: As you moved to Russia and then back to Czechoslovakia and then to the United States, in three of those cases you had to learn a new language. Did that integrate you into your new society or isolate you?
SCHEIN: I would put it that since I was a fairly good language learner, I found I could integrate fairly rapidly in each case. I didn’t feel very alienated in any of those situations, except very briefly in the grammar school in the U.S. when they put me back three grades in order to learn English, or one grade or whatever it was. So for a period of time while I was learning English I felt out of it. But then, I think, what really helped integrate was being coordinated. I think the athletics in the schoolyard were the vehicle for integration, and I was good enough with my hands. The U.S. was a hands culture, not a foot culture. If you weren’t any good with your hands, you couldn’t really make it in the schoolyard.
SCARPINO: You play baseball with your hands and soccer with your feet. Is what you’re…
SCHEIN: Well, soccer was not at that time played in the U.S., and so I had no experience in Europe with my hands. We had this particular game that required throwing and catching a ball, and I discovered I was reasonably good at it, so I was able to integrate fairly fast, once I got to the U.S. and Chicago.
SCARPINO: So you had a talent for languages, a talent for sports, and a talent for academics. Was there anything you weren’t good at?
SCHEIN: (laughter) I’ll have to think about that question. I didn’t feel all that talent. I think that may be the important point, that all through these years the productivity and the creativity was not something I knew I had. It was almost more a surprise that, “Hey, I can do this.” So there’s this undercurrent of insecurity that’s going right along with the productivity.
SCARPINO: So what role do you think that undercurrent of insecurity played in the career that you ultimately developed?
SCHEIN: It made me more observant and more analytical. I think I learned to take advantage of the insecurity and, if I was going to be careful and look around to see what was going on, I sometimes saw more than other people, and then realized that once I got into an academic career, particularly then jumping way ahead to when I got into group dynamics, I found these cautious observational skills were of enormous value to a consultant.
SCARPINO: Did you ever reach a point where you realized that your ability to see things that other people didn’t see and your intellectual abilities were way above average, that most people can’t do what you can do?
SCHEIN: The reason I would have to say no to that is because growing up in an academic family I was surrounded by very bright people all along, so my being brighter than someone else did not particularly stand out. If anything, I felt I was in a peer group of very bright academic kids who lived at the University of Chicago. Then when you go on to graduate school, your peer group is always going along with you, and so I think differentiating myself only came much, much later.
SCARPINO: You talked about your mother and her impact on your development. What about your father?
SCHEIN: Well, it’s kind of a mystery to me, what my relationship to my father was because he’s not as vivid in my memory. He was a dedicated, bright experimental physicist. He was from a personality point of view, I thought of him a little bit in adulthood as an enfant terrible. He was very emotional. He had a Hungarian-Czech background and the feelings that go with that. He was both realistic in terms of the Jewishness and getting out of situations where anti-Semitism might operate. He married a very Aryan German blonde woman. I think he wanted to put Jewishness out of the picture altogether. But the same kind of anger at being sort of a victim of something like being Jewish, he also was fairly paranoid about academic work, and other people stealing work from each other. The physicists at that time were very productive and also very competitive. So I heard a lot of arguments at home about, “Did so-and-so do something illegitimate? Did he really take my ideas? Should he have referred to me?” He represented to me sort of the downside of academia, even though—well, I should say both sides of academia because he was also reasonably successful, not to his own standard. I think he would have liked to have been a candidate for a Nobel Prize, and every year there was talk about who’s being nominated this year, and if he wasn’t nominated, there was some disappointment. So I think that the world I grew up in was not an average academic world. It was a very peculiar one, because I also got to know all these atomic physicists like Fermi and Salard.
SCARPINO: At Chicago?
SCHEIN: At Chicago, yeah.
SCARPINO: You mentioned just now and also several things, places that you wrote, that your father earned his PhD in experimental physics at the University of Zurich, Switzerland, and then in 1934, he had to look elsewhere for a career because the Swiss didn’t hire foreign nationals. You said that his choices were China and Russia, and that he chose Russia and moved the family to Odessa and ran a research institute there from 1934 to 1936. I’m wondering why a young scientist with a PhD in physics from a good university believed that his choices were China and Russia. What was happening in the world at that time that made those places his choices?
SCHEIN: He had had a fellowship, a Rockefeller Fellowship to the University of Chicago a few years earlier, so clearly the U.S. was on the horizon, but it must have been the case at that time that the U.S. was not offering jobs. Whereas, the Soviet Union and China both were very anxiously building up their science establishment and I think were offering huge jobs. As a young assistant professor I think he was given a great big lab in Odessa, and lots of resources to do the cosmic ray research in the Caucasus, and I think he needed high altitudes to do the research. So my hunch is if he’d gone somewhere else, it would have been a measly job, whereas if he went to Russia or China, it would have been a big job. But I was never able to find out later just what was involved.
SCARPINO: So he takes his family to Odessa, to Stalin’s Russia.
SCARPINO: What do you remember about being a young boy in Stalin’s Russia?
SCHEIN: I remember the hypocrisy of the regime, that we were extremely well treated while we could see our neighbors suffering. We got to go to special stores. We had a good salary. We had a fancy apartment and lived the life of dignitaries. We’d go on these vacations to the Caucasus, and I had a nice apartment. I remember playing with the other kids. So for me those three years were very pleasant years, until the reality hit of Stalinist purges, and we learned that on this one morning that a family, whom we knew well, had disappeared. In the meantime, I’m sure my father had been figuring out what we have to do next. I respected him in retrospect very highly for his caution and paranoia, because we could have been trapped either in Russia or in Czechoslovakia and he got us out of both places in plenty of time.
SCARPINO: So he moves the family one more time, in 1936, to Czechoslovakia.
SCARPINO: He did that to get out from underneath the purges.
SCHEIN: To get out from underneath Stalin. Finds a job at the University of Prague, but apparently it was a temporary job, and in the meantime he’s very busy making further contact with Arthur Compton, the person in the University of Chicago who was very instrumental in bringing many physicists over at that time. And sends my mother and me, after one year, to Zurich because by then he sees the danger from Hitler, and he doesn’t want my mother and me to be trapped in Czechoslovakia.
SCARPINO: So you’re in Czechoslovakia, that’s obvious at this point that Hitler is on the ascendancy with all this anti-Semitism. Your father, you mentioned, was of Jewish background, although he didn’t practice his faith, but he was still Jewish. Was that a concern, the fact that he was Jewish living in Czechoslovakia with Hitler on the rise?
SCHEIN: That’s why I’m saying he moved my mother and me, because yes it was a concern, and he wasn’t feeling—he had spent a lot of time, back and forth I think, going to Chicago already, and so the question was, was it safe to leave my mother and me behind? He decided after one year, this would have been sometime in ’37, to send us back to Switzerland, where we were safe, until he could provide for us to get to Chicago. It must have been very difficult, though. They sheltered me from this, to raise the money and make all these arrangements.
SCARPINO: Did you or your family directly experience any of the rising tide of anti-Semitism?
SCHEIN: No. No.
SCARPINO: Do you think that that experience of fleeing Hitler had any impact on you as you grew up, or did they shelter you enough that it….
SCHEIN: They sheltered me enough and the idea of passing was the salient thing. Many of his friends had become Catholics. He marries the German woman. We get to Chicago, I’m told I will be confirmed as a Lutheran. But the background really is it’s all about can I get through life without any taint of Jewishness. I think that was his motive. But in putting it that way, of course, what I got out of it was a lot of conflict of not knowing, you know, what’s going on here. I don’t think to this day I’ve sorted it all out, and it created in me a degree of anti-Semitism, actually, because there was so much—it’s so bad to be Jewish that in the end you agree, yes, it’s bad to be Jewish, and it would show up in later years in my being very impatient with a certain kind of Jew; the aggressive New York Jew. I discovered I didn’t like them. Now, where did that come from? I’m Jewish, they’re Jewish and yet I’m, to some degree, anti-Semitic, and I think the only explanation is all this sort of effort to not be Jewish creates a mixed set of feelings.
SCARPINO: As you grew into adulthood and passed through adulthood, did you reconcile that?
SCHEIN: No. I don’t think so. It would show up in odd ways. I kept being irritated that MIT Hillel didn’t stop sending me stuff and that the joint Jewish, what, the people who raise money, kept asking me for money, and I kept saying, “I’m not Jewish, I’m a Lutheran.” But my name is Jewish and so I kept being treated as Jewish when I didn’t want to be treated as Jewish, and that I presume continues to this day that I’m—if suddenly someone invites me to some Jewish event, I’m going to be very conflicted.
SCARPINO: So in 1938 your father secures a position at the University of Chicago and the family moves again, this time to the United States. Of course, in 1938, the United States along with a lot of the rest of the world was in the middle of a—or in the depths of a depression. What do you remember, the first impressions of depression-era Chicago?
SCHEIN: Not much of an impression of Chicago, but a strong feeling that my parents had borrowed a lot of money to get to Chicago, rented a very small apartment and had to live very frugally. So it—but the frugality in my mind was not associated in any way with the depression; it was associated with our own personal circumstances that my father was at that point in debt to his brother and to various other friends whom I didn’t know, that he had had to borrow money to get us to the U.S. He was an instructor. He had to go right back to the bottom of the ladder, and that was the U.S. system. You don’t come in to the middle. You start at the bottom.
SCARPINO: So despite the trajectory of his career, he did not come in with tenure.
SCHEIN: Not at all, not even as assistant professor, but as an instructor. But he was grateful that he was there at all.
SCARPINO: So you went to a public high school, Hyde Park High School, graduated in 1945.
SCHEIN: Well, the first decision was grammar school. I went to a public grammar school where I met other academic kids and the neighborhood kids. Then the high school decision, I could have gone, because my father was on the faculty to the Chicago Lab Schools, they were called, and that was sort of supposedly a better school. But for some reason the peer group attitude was that the wrong—the namby-pamby kids go there, and that’s not us. We were the tough crowd.
SCARPINO: So who didn’t want you in a namby-pamby school, you or your parents?
SCHEIN: Me, I think. I think they would have settled for either. But by then I had a pretty strong peer group, and a couple of them were professor’s kids. Hyde Park High had a pretty good reputation at that time. So off we went to Hyde Park High.
SCARPINO: So what was life—so you were in high school during World War II, obviously, and you graduated in 1945, so what was life like during World War II in Chicago for an immigrant teenager who had recently lived in Stalinist Russia and for whom English was a fourth language? Did you have—at that point had you made the adjustment?
SCHEIN: Yeah. I think I became American very, very fast, and the war and all those things meant very little to me. I was very concerned with school and athletics and my buddies. Beginning, I think—I can’t quite place when I began to separate myself sort of a little bit psychologically from my parents because I was assimilating faster than they were. I remember in one of the moves we went to an apartment. I had my own room and I wanted a desk of my own, and I always played my own classical music. Somewhere in there I began to differentiate myself because I guess that’s—that’s the only way I can put it at this point.
SCARPINO: Kind of a classic immigrant experience, isn’t it?
SCARPINO: It’s kind of a classic immigrant experience. The children assimilate faster than the parents in many cases.
SCHEIN: I guess that’s right.
SCARPINO: In 2006 you published an article with an incredibly interesting title, “From Brainwashing to Organizational Therapy: a Conceptual and Organizational Journey in Search of ‘Systematic’ Health and a General Model of Changed Dynamics. A Drama in Five Acts.” You—I pulled a sentence out of that that I’d like you to respond to. You were talking about the events of your youth, and you said, “These events are relevant in that I had by age 10 to learn Russian, Czech and then English, and had made four cultural transitions.” We already mentioned the fact that your first language was German. So then you learned three more languages and made four cultural transitions. How did doing that impact your later professional development, going through those experiences?
SCHEIN: You know, I still am not sure about that except in retrospect it seems to me it had this combined effect of having to be a very good learner, of having to be very observant as to how to get along, because in each place new rules, new situations, new language. So I guess I—the reason I learned English without an accent, I think, is because I had by then a better ear.
SCARPINO: I was trying to think of a tactful way to ask you how you did that, so I thank you for bringing it up. I mean, it’s…
SCHEIN: Well, I just did it, but I noticed that I had friends who had come at the same time, who had accents. They had learned some English in Europe. I hit Chicago with an empty ear. So everything I heard was good, solid Chicago radio announcer English.
SCARPINO: (laughter) That must have been interesting for your parents. You have written in several places about what you called creative opportunism. Did your ability to do that in any way come out of those early experiences?
SCHEIN: I’m sure of it, because I had—I had to learn how to get along. But I think where the encouragement and the intelligence comes in is not to be just adaptive, but to see how you can turn something to your own advantage. I don’t think I was conscious of doing that, but in retrospect that’s obviously what I was doing.
SCARPINO: You became really good at that, didn’t you?
SCHEIN: Pretty good at figuring out how to take whatever comes and making something out of it, particularly in the—I mean, the best example probably is process consultation where my clients rejected totally every effort to be a proper expert consultant, reduced me to having to figure out what the hell do I do with these people, learning how to help them, and then being accused of just teaching them pop psychology, saying that’s not what I am doing, and being told and tell the world what you’re doing, and writing a book called Process Consultation as a defense against being attacked, and discovering that’s probably one of the most important things I’ve ever written.
SCARPINO: We’re going to talk more about that later, but when you talked about not—trying to be a proper consultant, you mean the person who comes in and looks at you and then tells you what to do?
SCARPINO: Yeah. Okay.
SCHEIN: Which is still the big model out there. I’m always amused when my consultant friends say, “If you haven’t made a recommendation, you haven’t done your job,” when most of my career has been spent in companies after the recommendations have been useless, and then they call in the O.D. consultants, and say now what do we do.
SCARPINO: So you really ended up helping them to figure out what they needed to do, as opposed to telling them.
SCARPINO: One more question about your younger years and then we’re going to get out of there. But, again, I—I love that piece of brainwashing organizational therapy. But you have a line in there where you said, “As I look back on my life I see more clearly than I used to, how early influences shape my concepts and skills.” On the one hand that seems sort of obvious, but on the other hand I’m going to ask you, why do you see more clearly now then you did 10 years ago, or 20 years ago. This was in 2006.
SCHEIN: 2006, well, I think this—I have to—I’m not sure about this, but I think probably from the time I got into graduate school through 2006 I was coping, not reflecting. I was, you know, I was in the army, I was getting married, I was building a career, I was building a family. I don’t think there was a whole lot of time to think about anything. I was just going, going, going. But by 2006, I think, a lot of those things had been resolved; the kids were off, my wife was—would have been—we were having a very good time, which this was a year or so before she got her final bout of cancer. We were very busy traveling, I think, in those years. So there’s really not much time to reflect.
SCARPINO: So you entered the University of Chicago as an undergraduate in 1945, and from everything I’ve read you entered the university without a clear idea of a major, which makes me feel really good because most of my students don’t have an idea of what they want to major in either.
SCHEIN: But I did know I had to try physics at least.
SCARPINO: You did, right?
SCHEIN: I did.
SCARPINO: You took a class from …
SCHEIN: From Enrico Fermi.
SCARPINO: So I have to ask you this. What was it like to be in his class? You actually mentioned that the class itself didn’t go well for you, but you sat in the room with the man and you probably—you also knew him socially, so what was it like? What was he like? As a teacher and a person?
SCHEIN: As a teacher he was—he was a brilliant lecturer. He—I think he sort of just talked and it all made sense. I don’t think he was very formal. He was very informal. Small man, very active, walked around a lot. Socially, was very aloof in a way. He would interact, but then he’d wander off and talk to somebody else. There was this incident with my thesis where he picked it—picked up my thesis, which my father insisted it be left on the coffee table because he was so proud of it, it was this 300 page tome. Fermi picked it up and wandered over into the corner and was leafing through it for about five, maybe 10 minutes, and then beckoned me to come over, and interrogated me about the thesis, and it was a better interrogation than I had ever had by any faculty member. Somehow, he was able in 10 minutes to leaf though this thing and pick up what the issues were and get right to them. I’ll never forget that and that’s, I guess, what a brilliant mind can do. They can see things more quickly than other people and get right to the heart of things. He had a wife and two children who he mostly neglected, I suspect. His wife ended up writing a book about him and other of those scientists. In some—in many ways they were kind of a crazy lot, the lot of them. Salard was this flamboyant Hungarian.
SCARPINO: Your dad worked with them, but he was not a part of the Manhattan Project, is that right?
SCHEIN: My father, early in his career, decided he liked experimentation with cosmic rays. When the Manhattan Project came along he made the decision that that was applied work that he was not going to get involved in. He was going to stay and be a pure experimental cosmic ray physicist. So they all knew each other, but when they started to work in Stagg Field on the—on the chain reactions, that became a different group and my father just kept going with his research.
SCARPINO: So did—as you had the chance to reflect, as you got older and the kids grew up and so on and so forth, did you ever come to the realization that there are very few human beings on the surface of the earth whose parents had a peer group like your parents did? I mean, not many people have Enrico Fermi read their thesis and have drinks in their living room or whatever.
SCHEIN: Well, that—that explains why my colleague here insists on the title. The title, Right Place, Right Time, was not my original title at all. But the people who read it said that’s got to be the title because you don’t realize how unusual your life was in terms of where you landed at various points, through no fault of your own, but was able to take advantage of it.
SCARPINO: Yes, you were. So you’re an undergraduate, sort of tried a little physics and so on, but as a junior you took a class from Professor Carl R. Rogers.
SCHEIN: No, not a class.
SCARPINO: No? What did you—how did you intersect with him?
SCHEIN: In the biology—the way Chicago was organized, still in the great books era, was you took these huge courses where there would be lectures and sections, and then at the end of the semester one enormous three-hour test. So in the biology section, which was a semester long, there was a set of lectures about psychology, and I don’t know if it even was Rogers himself, but the Rogerian method got mentioned. Somehow, all of us thought that was interesting and funny and bizarre, this idea that one could do therapy by just reflecting back to the person. This was the Freudian time where you made deep interpretations, rather than just reflecting back. So we caricatured it and…
SCARPINO: You write in places, sort of making fun of this, right, with your peers, yes?
SCHEIN: Yeah. Exactly. So why—why I later ended up is—is—in that form of interaction is probably a separate story because at that time I chose psychology and decided on Stanford, but in no way as a Rogerian, that all that the Rogers thing in the—in printing work and so on that was going on did was to surface psychology for me as, okay, that seems like an interesting field. I’m flunking physics, I’m not good enough in math. I got to do something. Why I chose a humane thing remains a mystery, and I guess a lot of kids end up in psychology because at that point in their college history it seems like the most interesting subject.
SCARPINO: At that point when you heard those lectures and so on, psychology was not a statistically-based discipline. Am I—is that a correct conclusion on my part?
SCHEIN: Parts of it were and parts of it were not. Clark Hall at Yale was—was active in learning theory and that was a mathematical deductive theory. So it was there, but only in subsets of psychology.
SCARPINO: So it was possible to move into psychology at that point and not struggle with math the way a person would in physics.
SCHEIN: Not in graduate school. I had to take statistics and as—no matter what kind of psychologist I was going to be, I had to take statistics.
SCARPINO: Did you partly pick psychology because it wasn’t physics?
SCHEIN: Well, that’s a hypothesis, probably.
SCARPINO: In other words, that it just wasn’t your dad.
SCHEIN: I never thought of that consciously, but it’s quite possible.
SCARPINO: So in the draft autobiography that you were kind enough to send to me, I notice on page one you lead with a quote from Rogers, right? I just pulled part of it out, “…the individual has within himself vast resources for self-understanding and for altering his self-concept, his attitudes and for changing his self-directed behavior…” I Googled that and there are different versions of that. I mean, he—it seems like he put that in everything he wrote. I mean, it appears everywhere, but what was it about him and what he had to say that caused you to lead your autobiography with this many years later? This is the man that you were kind of making fun of as an undergraduate.
SCHEIN: I think what happened was that I had a major, major shift when I went to Bethel and NTL after—in my second year at MIT. The first shift was to have been in experimental psychology and choosing to come to MIT. But then I still was going to do experiments at MIT and started to do that. Then, McGregor says, you know, “Go try this human relations workshop in Bethel.” There’s a lot of issues about that I’ve never understood, whether he saw me needing that or wanting it or whatever. Anyway, being a T-group trainer was, I think in retrospect, just an unbelievably changing experience for me because I—as a participant, I hated it. I thought this was abdication and this crazy person telling us, you know, we had to learn by ourselves and what was this all about, and where were our feelings in our toes or in our head or whatever. But I observed that as people got into the group interesting things developed and we were learning. I guess I got hooked because I had been an expert in group dynamics. I’d had Bales and Homans and all these—and Lewin and son, and realized that all this research gave me virtually no tools for analyzing what was going on in front of my eyes. I think the more I think about it, the more I think that must—those summers must have completely changed my outlook on lots of things.
SCARPINO: Those are the summers you spent at Bethel?
SCARPINO: We’re going to talk more about that later, but I just wanted to get that on the record.
SCHEIN: But I think at that point I became a Rogerian, not before, and stayed a Rogerian in a way, and that’s why I thought it was appropriate to put it in this.
SCARPINO: At that point that you underwent that kind of intellectual transition, and I admit I didn’t look this up, so I’m just going to ask you, was he still active?
SCHEIN: Yes, he was. He was out her at the Western Behavioral Science Institute. But he was not—he was by then the great-grandfather. He was not any longer the sort of person from whom you learn directly. His influence had pervaded into a lot of other stuff.
SCARPINO: Were you in contact with him?
SCARPINO: Did he ever know that you reached back to your past and embraced this?
SCHEIN: No. I doubt it.
SCARPINO: You mentioned that McGregor encouraging you to attend at Bethel, summer workshops, and just for the benefit of somebody who listens to this later, tell us who he was.
SCHEIN: Okay. Douglas McGregor had been a psychology PhD at Harvard in the early 40’s with some emphasis on social psychologies. Early writings were on leadership, and he had been hired by MIT to head the Industrial Relations section of MIT, which later was the undergraduate base for what became the Graduate School of Management. McGregor and four other professors were sort of the founding members of the Graduate School of Management in 1952.
SCARPINO: That’s the Sloan School?
SCHEIN: That became the Sloan School later. It was then the School of Industrial Management. They had—these professors decided they were going to not reproduce the Harvard model of doing cases, but to really try to study management through the disciplines. So McGregor, being a social psychologist, was looking to hire other social psychologists with PhD’s, and that’s how I came in to his orbit, and he ended up recruiting me.
SCHEIN: But he became a very famous professor in the field of organization behavior.
SCARPINO: You mentioned yourself as a T-group trainer, and, again, for the benefit of somebody who listens to this or reads the transcript, could you briefly explain what that is?
SCHEIN: The great invention that grew out of Kurt Lewin’s group dynamics group was to see whether you could study groups in action. So they would give experimental or role plays or various kinds of exercises to people and have a researcher there and a trainer and study them. What happened one year was one of the researchers was analyzing what the group had done. Some group members came wandering by and said, “Can we listen?” Sure. The group members said, “You know, I didn’t see it quite that way.” They started to interact. At that point the researchers realized that maybe instead of just watching groups it might even be better to turn the group into its own research instrument. So let’s bring 12, 15 people together, put in a couple staff members, and then just let the group go and see what happens with the staff members facilitating, rather than instructing. That method of training became called a T-group, training group, and that became the major vehicle for human relations training from then on. There are still T-groups being done in various ways and places. But the key is that the group has to learn from its own experience with the staff members, who are experts, not telling the group what’s going on, but very quietly helping the group to sort out what’s going on, which is very much what therapists would do with patients. So it’s an application of the therapeutic model to group learning.
SCARPINO: Developed at MIT?
SCHEIN: Developed by a group that was part MIT, part Michigan, part national education. The group, Lee Bradford, Ron Lippitt, Doug McGregor, there were about six or seven of them who invented the Bethel process, and they came out of Michigan and MIT primarily.
SCARPINO: So you were at Chicago, you were exposed to psychology, you decided you wanted to major in it, and reached the decision that Chicago did not offer enough in the way of courses to actually allow you to get the major that you wanted. So you wrote somewhere that you went to Stanford, but you had to apply to Stanford and get in. So you managed to get in to that program and then, as I recall, you basically did an entire major in a year. Now they run the quarter system so you could go all year, but you did the major in an entire year, and then you stayed there to earn your master’s. So as an undergraduate student, how did you—how in the world did you ever reach the conclusion that your university didn’t have enough depth to give you what you wanted, and then you picked another college and then you applied and got in and went there and did it. I mean, did you do this on your own, or did—was somebody guiding you?
SCHEIN: I was in a fraternity, but, you know, this is one of—one of the characteristics of me that may also be very important to figure out is that I do have blanks. I am completely blank on how that happened. Completely. I don’t remember applying. I don’t remember whether I applied anywhere else. I don’t remember why Stanford. All I know is I ended up there.
SCARPINO: You finished that major in a year.
SCARPINO: Stayed another year and earned a master’s.
SCARPINO: What stands out about your time at Stanford?
SCHEIN: That it was …
SCARPINO: Other than that you had been working really hard.
SCHEIN: But it was fabulous. I found myself in my element. I liked the classes. I liked the hard work. It was wonderful. I have nothing but good memories of those two years at Stanford. Let’s see, in the second year I also had a girlfriend out there, whom I had met in the summer before Stanford. I remember also a missed opportunity, a—my roommate was this crowned prince of the Bahrain Islands, with whom I did not maintain contact, which is a pity because I would have loved to know what actually did become of him. I met wonderful people. I met Allen Newell, who became a major figure in artificial intelligence at Carnegie Mellon. He was, at that time, a physics major and there was this wonderful story of he and his physics buddies and I—wanting to investigate extrasensory perception and the—what’s the term for trying—psychokinesis, trying to get an object to move. We had this perfectly flat glass table done with great precision and put a marble in the center of it, and then concentrated like hell to get that marble to move. It never did. (laughter) But these were physics students and I was always intrigued by the fact that physicists are much more interested in this sort of the paranormal, even though their field is so concrete.
SCARPINO: So you went to this place that you found intellectually invigorating and then you hooked up with physics again.
SCHEIN: A bunch of physicists. That was accidental, I think. I don’t know how or why I got—and then Newell didn’t remain in physics, he went on into artificial intelligence and computers and stuff.
SCARPINO: Were there any professors in your field that you worked with at Stanford or whose work you read that had a particular influence on you as your career now begins to at least roughly take shape?
SCHEIN: Again, it’s so odd. The social psychologist was—his name was Farnsworth, a very nice man, but pedestrian in a way. But they had brought in as a visiting professor this guy by the name of Harry Helson who was actually a perceptual psychologist. He was interested in vision and hearing and judgment and so on, and an experimentalist, and he needed an assistant, so another one of these falling into a situation. I was very interested in social influence and how it occurs. He wanted to see whether perceptions of weight judgments could be influenced socially. So we rigged up an experiment where people would reach into a box and pick up weights and judge them as light, medium, heavy. Then we would bring in pairs of subjects, one of whom was a confederate, and see whether what the confederate said would influence the weight judgment of the subject, and, of course, it did. Then Helson was a mathematician and he had an elaborate theory of adaptation level, which is actually correct. In other words, your judgments are very much anchored by the previous set of judgments that you’ve been making. If you have been sitting in a very bright room and you move to a medium room, it’s going to seem dark to you, whereas, if you had been sitting in a very dark room, and you move into that same medium room, it’s going to seem very light to you. He showed that if you get very careful measurements, you can actually show that mathematically, that how our perceptual system works is sort of predictable. Well, that part didn’t appeal to me, but that I was doing an experiment on social influence, that appealed to me a great deal and was my first real experiment that we ended up writing up. That was my master’s thesis, so I was not only a master student, but I was already doing, you know, very advanced work. I was good enough in math to be able to do statistics and was very proud of the fact that I was—Quinn McNemar had written the statistics book at that time for psychologists, and I was able to be his research assistant—his teaching assistant.
SCARPINO: He was at Stanford?
SCHEIN: He was at Stanford, right. So Helson and McNemar and then were other teachers that are very influential. Ernest Hilgard in learning theory and he brought in Edward Tolman from Berkeley, and I learned all about how rats ran mazes. Everything was exciting. Then this incident with the Baez family where I had for a child psychology class I had to interview a little kid. My girlfriend was living with the Baez’s. That’s the connection to my father. My father knew Al Baez and so somehow my girlfriend ended up living there. So Mimi Baez, the young sister—the younger sister of Joan Baez, was the little girl I interviewed. I still have this document of how Mimi answered all these questions about why clouds move and so on. Only years later I realized that, my God, these two girls became world famous singers.
SCARPINO: So what was—what was Joan Baez like when you met her?
SCHEIN: She was a little 10-year-old nothing. (laughter) Nothing to me, I don’t know—I don’t how she appeared to other people.
SCARPINO: So in 1949 you decided to go to Harvard to earn your PhD?
SCHEIN: Because I had used up Stanford. I had taken everything they had.
SCARPINO: It sounds like it. In social psychology, and Harvard had a pretty impressive faculty at that, including a man named Gordon Allport, A-L-L-P-O-R-T.
SCARPINO: Yeah. You in your draft autobiography describe him as your first important mentor. Why do you give him credit for that?
SCHEIN: Well, because I got in to a deeper relationship with him than I did with anybody at Stanford. Helson was an interesting man, but he was not a social psychologist. Allport was also, I think, a very fatherly figure for me. He was older. He was eminent. He was also very autocratic. That famous line, if you can’t write it, you don’t know it, which certainly stuck with me. Insisting on good writing and clear thinking. Also, you’ll be happy to know, he was the one who insisted that you always had to have a good piece of history with whatever you were doing. So the reason my dissertation was 300 pages long was because 150 of it is the history of imitation. He insisted on that. If I’m going to study this process, I have to really look back at how it was studied before and write about that, assimilate that.
SCARPINO: Did you find that to be helpful?
SCHEIN: Yes, I did.
SCARPINO: I’m going to put a few transitional sentences in—
SCHEIN: Yeah. Can we quit in about 10 minutes?
SCARPINO: Absolutely. Absolutely. You wanted to be done at 10:00 and I was sort of sneaking looks at my watch here, so that I make sure I didn’t run you over. What I’m going to do here is we’re going to sort of make a transition, but I want somebody who listens to this or reads this transcript in 10 years to know where we’re going. So I’m going to put up a few signposts. So in 1950 you’re still facing the draft and still working on your PhD at Harvard. So you entered the U.S. Army’s clinical psychology program, which provided support at a second lieutenant level. In exchange, however, you had to agree after you got your PhD to give the U.S. Army three years of service, which you did in the Army Medical Service Corps as a psychologist. It also turned out that Harvard required a one-year internship, and so you served that internship at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., earned your PhD from Harvard in 1952, and then, as promised, entered the U.S. Army. From 1952 to 1956, served as a research psychologist and Chief of Social Psychological Section, Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, Washington, D.C., at the rank of captain. So ultimately you published a great deal out of those experiences, but the first question I want to ask you is that you were an officer in the military and you did serve in the military during the Cold War. Did you, just from that experience, learn anything about leadership or organizational function by virtue of having been a military officer?
SCHEIN: Yeah. I learned a lot. Maybe not—not exactly what one might anticipate. I learned, for example, that bureaucracies are not nearly as stiff as one might think, by the experience of how I was inducted. You know, go down and buy a uniform and read the manual and learn how to salute in front of a mirror, then show up one day. That’s not how I thought military training worked, but clearly the…
SCARPINO: So I’m concluding that you didn’t go to basic training.
SCHEIN: I never got basic training, which was actually a violation of the law when they sent me to Korea. They were not—you were not allowed to send anyone overseas without basic training, but we all—a lot of us went.
SCARPINO: I don’t mean this in any way to sound facetious, but when they sent you to Korea, did they give you a gun?
SCHEIN: No. No. The problem was if the war had broken out again, then you had a bunch of people over there without any training. But we never had a situation where it would have mattered.
SCARPINO: So your sense about the organization was that the bureaucracy was not as stiff as it appeared to be from the outside looking in. What about leadership? Were you in any kind of a leadership role or have an opportunity to assess leadership?
SCHEIN: Yeah. I learned that my sort of low-key analytical approach was not going to be suited to this assignment that I suddenly got to, because I was a research scientist and understood research, and the army wanted to test these drugs on sea sickness. I was made the project leader of this project, which required having enlisted men take these pills and monitoring who got sick and making sure they took the pills. I was in charge and I was reminded by, I’ve forgotten, my—the senior person that being in charge meant I had to—to order these troops to do this. I had to explain it to them and I had to be kept shied. I couldn’t sort of wander in as the researcher and have somebody else manage the process. I had to manage it and so I found I could learn to do that. I never particularly enjoyed it, but I went through several crossings and orienting the troops and telling them what I was, and being—being the officer.
SCARPINO: By crossings, you mean back and forth across the ocean.
SCHEIN: The north Atlantic, yes. It was designed to be done at a time when a lot of people would get seasick, because it was a better time to test these drugs. It was a fascinating project and we got results. We learned, for example, that the place not to be on a ship is in the bow because you go up and down and sideways. No matter what drug they took, those are the ones that got sick, whereas, the ones at the center, you know, where there’s less movement, got less sick. Some drugs worked better than others. But in that project I had to function as—as a military officer and had a lot of troops under my—technically under my command.
SCARPINO: So when you went on with your career, was there anything that you did or experience in that time that was helpful, or did you have to become the researcher and the professor again and let go of that?
SCHEIN: It’s that I chose to become the researcher, professor again. It was—it didn’t feel right to be in a command position because then, again, I had that choice as a department chairman, whether becoming a dean or not, and I really had an aversion to taking accountable command positions. I could be accountable, but I didn’t want to command.
SCARPINO: Just to remind people who might listen to this recording or read the transcript, the Korean War raged from 1950 to about 1953 and at Walter Reed you conducted research that involved repatriated U.S. military personnel who had been captured during the Korean War and subjected by the Chinese to what we colloquially call brainwashing. Then, you later published a great deal on that topic. Can you talk a little bit about how you got involved with those service personnel and some of whom had, in fact, been subject to that kind of treatment?
SCHEIN: That’s a big topic. Do you want me to start it now?
SCARPINO: Why don’t you just tell me how you went from seasickness to that subject, and then this afternoon we’re going to talk for two hours about your scholarship. But I kind of wanted to set this up.
SCHEIN: Yeah, that’s fine. When you’re in the Army, you’re in the Army. The seasickness project I was assigned and the Korean thing, there had been this little switch operation where we had recovered some of the sick and wounded prisoners and found that they had been subjected to some indoctrination. The services got very, very worried that maybe there was a lot of damage and these troops might need some therapy and who knows what. So they pulled together—I learned this later—all the psychiatrists, social workers, and psychologists, in all three services, and made them into teams to go over and get onboard ship with the group of their patriots and do testing and whatever therapy could be done during the 16-day voyage to San Francisco. How did I get involved? I got a telegram to report to Travis Air Force Base within 48 hours, without any knowledge, but when you’re in the Army that’s—you report to Travis, which is odd, it was in northern California. Only when I got to Travis did I realize there were other social workers, psychologists, being collected, and we were then told we would be put into teams, flown to Japan, flown on to Korea, and the project was explained. But the involvement was strictly involuntary. I was sent, put aboard ship, and then as it turned out, my ship was delayed, and so I found myself in Incheon for three weeks with nothing to do. So I then became the social psychologist again, and realized, my God, what an opportunity. These people are coming through here and I can pull them off the line and interview them.
SCARPINO: You began to do that.
SCHEIN: I began to do that. So for three weeks I was gathering data for what became, you know, then a major research project. But it was good luck that, in a way, that I had those three weeks to study—
SCARPINO: You had a lot of that, didn’t you?
SCHEIN: Well, I don’t like the word luck. I think I had good fortune, but it isn’t luck. These things were all, you know, the fact I was in the Army is—was my decision. So the fact that I ended up in Korea was a result of my decision. The fact that there was a delay in the ship was luck, but somehow luck doesn’t feel right.
SCARPINO: Creative opportunism.
SCHEIN: Creative opportunism feels better.
SCARPINO: I’m going to let you off the hook here because you have a session and I think it must be almost 10:00. I’ve been sort of counting in my head.
SCHEIN: It is 10:00.
SCARPINO: I’m talking again to—doing an oral history interview with Edgar Schein, winner of the Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Leadership Association, and this is our second session today. I will say just to get this on the record, between sessions I attended your educational session at the International Leadership Association and it was just you and a moderator, and it was—it was an astonishing experience with standing room only in a rather large space. So we finished up the morning conversation with you talking about how you got involved with repatriated service personnel, and how you interviewed them and so on and so forth. Just to kind of make another transition for people who might be listening or reading the transcript in the future, you were kind enough to share with me your draft autobiography and on page one you said, “During my career I had the unusual experience of being involved in the evolution of five different concepts in the field of organizational psychology; coercive persuasion, career anchors, process consultation, organizational culture and helping.” So I want to talk to you about each of those five areas, starting with the first one, of course, of persuasion. To do that I want to remind the recorder and you and me that I mentioned this morning an article you published in 2006 called, “From Brainwashing to Organizational Therapy: a Conceptual and Organizational Journey in Search of ‘Systematic’ Health and a General Model of Changed Dynamics.” This title just cries out for an explanation, and, in particularly, the “from brainwashing to organizational therapy.” So I’m wondering if we could start this conversation by you talking about how those pieces fit together.
SCHEIN: I think that the idea of the influence of the arts on our work is buried in there someplace, in that I thought of my life suddenly as a series of acts, and I thought that might be cool to have scenes, and you could have a chorus, and, you know, depict a career as a Greek play of some sort. The acts sort of fell out. Well, each act was one of my major concepts. At the time I was thinking about this, I was involved with a Japanese colleague, Juichi, who had created a little think tank. He got a Jungian therapist, a Freudian, me, himself and one other Jungian together for two two-day meetings to integrate everything, because he was convinced these things could be integrated. The theme would be organizational therapy. So that’s where that word came from, out of that think tank group, which must have started about 10 years ago, I would guess. In one way or another this Japanese colleague and I have continued to have various kinds of activities together, but we spent several years and ended up writing a little book called Organizational Therapy. But thinking about what is organizational therapy really then caused me to review all the other concepts, and then this paper, I think it was a—also kind of an award paper. I think that Peter Senge and the Society for Organizational Learning were honoring me, and I had to give a talk. The talk was this five acts, which then got turned into this paper. That’s, by the way, often a theme in my writing. I find it sometimes easiest to write from a talk. The talk can be dramatic and so on, and when you figure out the drama, then the writing is easy because the drama is what makes the writing better. So I had given this talk, it went well, and then just converted it to a paper. In each case as I recall, I gave some of the facts and then the Greek chorus reflected on the facts, and that’s how I ended up writing my memoirs; facts and then reflections.
SCARPINO: Could you, for the benefit of somebody who might listen to this and it’s not in your field, just briefly explain what organizational therapy is?
SCHEIN: We never figured it out, because the therapist has a client. We know how to deal with an individual and we know how to deal with a group; group therapy is respected and well. But I recently actually wrote a paper on organizational therapy that highlights the problem, that you don’t really know who the client is. Is it the manager you’re talking to? Is it the manager in the role of the CEO? Is a department? Is it the whole organization? And it doesn’t resolve very easily. So being a therapist to a system in a way doesn’t make sense, or at least we haven’t figured out yet how to make sense with it.
SCARPINO: You’re still working on it.
SCHEIN: Still working on it, and thinking that a lot of people have oversimplified it. They think that when they’re working with the chief executive that then they’re working with the organization. But someone will immediately point out, well, how do you know whether what’s good for him at his level is good for the worker at the worker level, and aren’t they both part of the organization? How would you resolve it? So I think organizational therapy is yet to be figured out, what that means.
SCARPINO: So in writing and we also spoke this morning, you described Gordon Allport as your first important mentor, and David Rioch, R-I-O-C-H, as your second. You wrote, you said, “he engaged me to develop my own research program focusing on influence and leadership.” What impact did he have on your professional development?
SCHEIN: He was a—first of all, a famous psychiatrist, and I think we all respect someone who can work with catatonic schizophrenics and help them. He was writing this thing called The Chestnut Lodge, a Maryland—a famous Maryland psychiatric center, and his wife who was a psychologist was also there. So, first of all, there was the aura of being around a great man, which was also the case with Allport. I was a young psychologist and here was this man who had really done incredible things. So just being around him was good to see and he was a very nice, benign, friendly man. He would dispense these incredible bits of advice like, “If you want to know something, don’t ask about it,” which he particularly said, I think, or reminded me, he said it again in the context of the repatriation research where these people had been through unbelievable experiences, and you kind of sense that they might not want to talk about them, so you have to give them the license to tell their story any way they want to tell it. Then Rioch helped me publish the paper.
SCARPINO: Your first one about the repatriated service people?
SCHEIN: Yeah, because when I sent it to my own journal, they rejected it, and he was—knew the editor of psychiatry, that journal, and what else? I housesat for them. That was a very important experience to be in the house of someone whom you revere, and see what their bookshelves look like, and pick up the aura. Then that was about it. I spent three years there. After I left there, I continued a relationship with his wife, who became a therapist in these A.K. Rice Institutes, which were the British Tavistock version of the sensitivity training workshops that were being held in the U.S. She came to Bethel where I talked to her and she then noticed that the Bethel T-groups were becoming too much therapy for “normals,” where instead of teaching people about groups and leaderships, it was increasingly becoming to be focused on individual feedback. She thought that was all wrong. I thought it was all wrong. So I gradually in the 70’s pulled out of that. She actively wrote articles against it. So that was the end of the Rioch story.
SCARPINO: So you talked, as you mentioned, the phrase you used was the aura of being around a great man. As your own career advanced, did you at some point realize that you’d become a great man, that people …
SCHEIN: I never felt that.
SCARPINO: Did you ever mentor other people?
SCHEIN: Yes, in a coaching sense. But I was always uncomfortable being too distant status-wise. I was not uncomfortable being subordinate, but I was very uncomfortable being superior.
SCARPINO: Does a great man or person necessarily have to be superior?
SCHEIN: No. I think the feelings of being valuable, useful, great, arrives much more around face-to-face helping than giving a great lecture to a thousand people. I could appreciate yesterday, standing ovation, great honors, but did I really feel like a great man at that moment? No. Whereas, if I’m working with someone, I’m doing some Skype coaching, and this other person is really sorting through a problem, and I say some things that really make him feel, you know, that—boy that, you know, I can see it now, that has really helped me. That does give me the feeling of being a great man. I’ve figured out how to really help this person. That elicits the feeling of greatness. Talking to a thousand people or having an undergraduate admire me is all well and good. That was great when these kids came up and wanted to be photographed, but that’s more an event. It doesn’t produce a feeling of greatness. The feeling comes with actual accomplishment.
SCARPINO: In writing about your experience at Walter Reed, one of the things that you said was exposure to interdisciplinary work had a significant impact on your career as it later developed. There was an endocrinologist there and a collagist studying crowding with rats, psychologists and so on. What did you learn from being immersed in that interdisciplinary environment?
SCHEIN: Let me back up and say that the first experience of that was at Harvard. So this was more of a carryover. The experience of being trained as a psychologist and then encountering a Clyde Kluckhohn and a Talcott Parsons and a Robert Murray who were each great men. Murray in clinical psychology, Parsons in sociology, Kluckhohn in anthropology, and then B.F. Skinner was doing all his work on—on animals in the Skinner box, and he was part of that group. Just seeing that there were different ways of looking at the world by eminent people was a real trip, you know, and I could identify and broaden my own outlook by seeing how they thought and how they acted. They were wonderful role models. So then at Walter Reed more different kinds of people, again, to see that science is a very complex, multifaceted thing, and they were all specialists, but we interact. Then, what Rioch did that produced more direct influence was these consultants he brought in, particularly Erving Goffman, who was also a sociologist and became a—and to this day is my hero, because of his approach to how he analyzed interpersonal dynamics. Then there was this other great psychologist, Leon Festinger, who was another one of my heroes in terms of the research that he had done. They would show up maybe once a month at Walter Reed and just interact with us so we could, again—I think the key is I could identify with them, and through that identification incorporate some of their thinking into my own, which enabled me to think more broadly.
SCARPINO: Later on you became a significant consultant in your own right. Did you learn about consulting at least in the beginning from them?
SCHEIN: No, not at all. No. The consulting was learned as a direct result of getting into companies because Rioch hiring these people as consultants, that was—they were consultants in name. They came around and horsed around with us and we could ask them questions and stuff, but it was a collegial relationship. When McGregor got me started consulting with an organization, I knew this was serious business. You’re getting paid for it, there’s a client, they expect something, you have to deliver. So the learning of that was a different process and the example I used from digital was one kind of learning that I got as to how—how you have to get into the client’s world and so on. That was a holy separate experience that happened at least five years after the Walter Reed experience.
SCARPINO: I’m going to ask you something that I know you talked about in your session this morning, but chances are people won’t gain access to it that way. I also read an interesting piece that you wrote called The Academic as Artist: Personal and Professional Roots, it came out in 1993, and you’re talking about, again, your work with the Korean War or repatriated prisoners, and Rioch telling you if you want to talk about something socially or emotionally sensitive, don’t ask about it. I’m wondering if you could talk about that, not just what he told you, but what you learned from that and how you applied it.
SCHEIN: Well, I remember at the time when he first said it we were having, I think, some kind of a discussion of how to do interviews, that it was kind of a shocking statement, and it was made probably at least a year or more before I ended up in Korea facing a repatriate. But I remembered that at that time in social psychology there was a lot of research on social desirability in saying what’s appropriate. So we all knew that when you interview somebody, the biggest danger is that they will just tell you what they think is appropriate at that point. So I knew that since these repatriates had had some very tough experiences and had been accused of maybe signing false confessions and doing horrible things, that they would be very sensitive and therefore I had to lean over backwards not to make anybody defensive, and the only way I could think about that was to get them to tell me in as much detail as they were willing to share what had actually happened to them, without in any way conveying that I was interested in this, that or the other thing. I just wanted their story. What’s—When—What happened, and I would get some very interesting bits, you know. This communist soldier suddenly came up to me and said, “Congratulations, you’ve been liberated,” in bad English. I thought I was going to be shot by this Chinese, and instead he’s telling me I’ve been liberated in English and congratulates me. Now, could I have elicited that detail in any way other than, “Just tell me from the moment you were captured what happened.” I found that this works, you know. People then, and maybe one person tells you this bit of detail and another person tells you that, and pretty soon you’ve got a pretty good story that you’ve been able to put together from these dozen or so narratives. That became the paper on the Chinese indoctrination program for prisoners of war, was a composite story based on 20, 30, 40 interviews. But in every case, I started with the Rioch principle. Don’t ask about it and only if they gave you a lead, if they said, well, you know, then these interrogators tried to make us sign this false confession. Again, I would be careful and say, “Well, tell me a little more about that,” rather than how did they do it or why did they do it or how did you react. I just suddenly in my own mind connected that to those categories of questioning, then became in my process consultation book and helping book key concepts for how to organize types of questions. But I realized I must have already developed that typology long before I wrote about it.
SCARPINO: At the time that you were doing that, was that kind of a technique common or uncommon in your field?
SCHEIN: I don’t know. I really don’t know.
SCARPINO: Because I’m interviewing you on behalf of the International Leadership Association and because I’m interested in the subject, I’m going to ask you, based on your work with these service personnel who had been prisoners of war, did you learn anything about leadership?
SCHEIN: I did learn a couple of things. I learned that—that leadership matters a great deal to social control in this sense, that one of the main things that military leaders did in the POW camp was to say to the kid who was younger and less experienced and didn’t know what was going on, the sergeant might say to the kid, “Look, don’t believe all this crap that they’re feeding you. Hang in there. We’re going to be okay.” And that worked, and how do I know it worked? Because the Chinese pulled that sergeant right out of there. So the Chinese understood that if you really want to get to the people, pull your leaders out. I’m sure that’s probably in Machiavelli. That’s a well-understood principle; if you want to get to the people, get rid of the leaders first. If only to move them and I know prison wardens do that. They move leader types around. So in that sense I learned leaders are very critical to social control. I learned very little about the process of leadership. I learned more about the importance of it.
SCARPINO: You wrote, again, based on this research, that “further study of what happened under Chinese captivity became a central concern of an interest displaced forever, my commitment to experimentation as a central way of gathering data.” So, apparently, while you were working on this project, you made the transition from experimental research to applied research, participatory research, and why was that significant in the development of your career is what I really want to know?
SCHEIN: Let’s go over the sequence again. Harvard trains me to be a very good experimental psychologist and I do a brilliant thesis on imitation and publish it. I learned that you can train someone to imitate. Okay. Then I end up at Walter Reed. I’m trying to do more experimental research. This POW thing comes along. So suddenly I have all this data. I work on that, and when all that’s said and done, I’ve met my future wife. I get married. I’m shipped—I shipped myself to MIT to start my academic career. Mentally, I am in two places. I have this POW study, which is going to lead to more interest in figuring out what happened to the civilians on the mainland, and I know that this is a project for which I’ll get funded that will continue. I also mentally am gearing up to do more experiments at MIT and getting ready to do that. It will be on leadership on the kind of thing that Harold Leavitt had done in communications, and so I’m now working in parallel. I have a POW study and the experimentation. One year into this, McGregor says, “It might be nice for you to experience these human relations workshops,” but this is now a whole year later.
SCARPINO: Those are the ones at Bethel.
SCHEIN: Those are the ones at Bethel. So I show up at Bethel and have this epiphany that everything I know as a social psychologist doesn’t much help me understand what’s going on in these groups and seeing two kinds of leadership. One, the design leadership of the people who created these workshops, you know. Two hours of T-group and then a 20-minute lecture, then a role-playing exercise, and then back to T-group. I realized, that’s a kind of an interesting arrangement and these people, these social psychologists have organized three weeks’ worth of that. That’s how long the original workshops were. So that was interesting, and inside the T-group are these staff members who don’t do anything, except occasionally speak up and ask a question or whatnot. So I think I got absolutely fascinated during my second year at MIT with this whole new approach, and it was at a pretty place in the summer, and we found a house that we could rent, so I signed up for a second summer. We ended up buying a house up there. So we made a commitment to spending our summers in Maine. I become then an intern and then a staff member trainer. So I still have a research knowledge and head, but my daily interests are in these crazy workshops. Then I realize that those workshops are developing techniques of learning and training that I can use in my classroom because my traditional approach to just lecturing wasn’t all that popular with masters students who had to take the class. Then McGregor put me in with Sloan fellows who weren’t at all interested in being lectured at, and I watched how McGregor used case materials and role plays and so on to get them involved, so I think this—this whole aura of there’s a whole different world of relating to people that is not the traditional academic model. It suddenly became—took me over, as willing this so because I was in a business school. I had to learn this stuff, so I might as well really get into it and do what they’re doing and discovering that I liked it.
SCARPINO: This is when you began to switch to experiential learning?
SCARPINO: Yeah. Okay. As a researcher, what would you say are the most important things that you’ve learned from working with those repatriated prisoners?
SCHEIN: What I learned from the repatriated prisoners? What I learned was captured by the concept of coercive persuasion. I discovered in that setting and then in other settings that if I have you physically captive, I can influence you if I choose to. There is no way you can be strong enough to resist all the things I can do if you can’t leave. So it applies to the POW’s, but it applies equally to the golden handcuffs. If I’m economically committed to this institution, I have tenure, I am going to allow myself or be forced to be socialized into their culture. There is no gain in being a dissident or a deviate if I’m stuck there. If I’m stuck there, I’m going to sooner or later be influenced. I see that in families of kids who have to go along with their parents because they can’t leave. Even when they run away, they get brought back. So naturally they’re going to pick up what their parents want them to pick up. Kids in school, kids in the—people in the military, people in corporations, if you’re there physically, you’re going to adapt and adjust to the culture, and that will happen to prisoners. That’s what the Stockholm Syndrome is allegedly labeled for. Even if you’re a Jew in a Nazi concentration camp, if you’re there long enough and have no hope of ever getting out, sooner or later you find some ways of adjusting and some of those ways of adjusting will be what the captor wants. So that’s coercive persuasion. The coercion is the physical restraint; persuasion is what then happens afterwards.
SCARPINO: So as a person, as a human being, what impact had working with those repatriated prisoners have on you? Some of them must have had terrible stories and I don’t think we had the term, PTSD, in those days, but some of them must have really been suffering.
SCHEIN: You know, the truth about those stories and other stories I’ve run into since is I think I learned somewhere early in life to be detached. I think I could hear those stories without being much influenced by them. I could retell them and tell horrible things that happened, but not feel them. I think that’s a theme that hasn’t really surfaced, maybe not even enough in the memoirs, that my way of relating to the world is a very detached way. So I don’t …
SCARPINO: You said, scientific objectivity or Ed Schein?
SCHEIN: I think it started earlier, you know, all these moves from culture to culture forced a level of detachment, which I think I maintained. I don’t plunge into situations and feel them, and I tend to resist being plunged into situations because I don’t know how I’ll feel. It might be devastating. It might be too much for me. I have to be cautious. I have to stay at the margin in order to protect my own sense of integrity.
SCARPINO: Do you think you learned that from your dad?
SCHEIN: Did I learn that from my dad? Quite possibly, but certainly not consciously. If it happened, it happened unconsciously.
SCARPINO: You published a great deal on coercive persuasion and, as I looked at your CV, I think the last thing that you published on that topic came out in 1962, A Psychological Follow-Up of Former Prisoners of War, The Chinese Communists, Part I and Part 2, in 1960 and 1962. How would you assess, with the benefit of hindsight, the impact of the work that you did or the research that you did on those repatriated prisoners on your field? What was the scholarly impact of your work?
SCHEIN: I think it really helped to understand some aspects of World War II because it got lumped in with a lot of Bettelheim’s and other people’s work on what happened in the Nazi camps and what happened to Russians in Siberia. But I have a feeling that once that whole field became less relevant, so did coercive persuasion become less relevant in the field, and I find myself from time to time reminding people that that’s how culture works. Culture creates a lot of the coercive forces by the kinds of rules. This is how we do things, my friend, and if you don’t like it, leave, and if you can’t leave, you just—that’s coercive persuasion. So in a sense it—it became, for me at least, just one of the normal processes that goes on in the world. I really don’t know to what extent it influenced the field, once the initial wave of, okay, so that’s what brainwashing is, on to other things.
SCARPINO: But the idea of coercive persuasion certainly continued to influence the way you looked at the world, the way you understood things.
SCARPINO: So you decided to accept employment at MIT and stayed there for the rest of your career. Why MIT? You must have had other choices or other opportunities.
SCHEIN: I was toward the tail end of Walter Reed preparing for my academic career and I had a very good offer from Cornell Social Psychology Department. I visited Ithaca, a lovely town, very hard to get to, however, so it was not a completely positive reaction. But while I was still in the early stages of thinking about this, what literally happened is a letter arrived from Douglas McGregor, whom I only knew by reputation at that point, inviting me to consider coming to MIT. I think what—if it had been Rensselaer Poly or even Carnegie Mellon, I might not have even given it a second thought. But it was Cambridge. During my graduate school I had gone and taken a class with Alex Bavelas at MIT, and I knew that Kurt Lewin and all the social psychology stuff at MIT had been very important. So MIT had already some positive cache for me. So when McGregor invited me to look into it, I did look into it and liked it, but realized that this is a go, no go, I mean, this is a, how do I put it, a consequential decision, that if I went to MIT, I was finished with social psychology. I would never be accepted again in an academic department. I felt this very strongly and I think I was correct. There’s a sort of a norm about once you become applied, don’t pretend you can come back and be a basic researcher. So I had to debate that with myself. What were the pro’s and con’s of that, and maybe if I hadn’t had the three years in the army, I would have rejected MIT and gone straight to Cornell. But I was intrigued, Cambridge, what the hell, do it, and never looked back. But I remember being quite nervous about the decision.
SCARPINO: But then after you went, you stayed there for your entire career, even though you reached a point where, I assume, you must have had job offers and at least a theoretical possibility of moving. Why did you decide to stay for all those years?
SCHEIN: Well, a couple of reasons and one complexity. Brand new young school, exciting young faculty, prospect of tenure, so the first six, seven years took care of themselves. I wouldn’t have even thought about moving until after that. So now, it was 65, somewhere in there I had a major offer. Yale wanted me to take a joint appointment in their industrial administration and psychology department, fed by a professor, Donald Taylor, whom I had had at Stanford and liked very much. He tempted me with psychology. You could be back in psychology and, you know, be a true psychologist, and, at the same time, joint appointment, big job. I think tenure was—yeah, tenure came with it. So Mary and I went down there. We had friends at Yale. They loved Yale and New Haven. We had, by then, three kids who were all at the Shady Hill School in Cambridge and liked that very much. We had made the commitment to private school, and so when we raised that question with the Yale people, they said, well, the Foote School is like Shady Hill and we knew that to be true. We have people on their boards, so, you know, there won’t be any problem, you’ll just—we bought that. Bought a big, beautiful brick house, much grander than what we had, big top floor with sort of a recreation area, and really started to have big dreams about life in New Haven, close to New York and so on. Came back to Cambridge to contemplate this and got a letter from the Foote School saying, we are very sorry but we cannot admit any of your children. There is another good school here in New Haven and perhaps in a year or two you can reapply. Mary and I looked at that letter and looked at each other, and said, we’re not going. We’re not going to pull three kids out of a good school into some unknown, no matter how good the job is. So we started to unwind it and it was difficult. We had contracted for the house and we lost a little bit of money. But it suddenly jarred us into what’s important. Is a slightly better job more important than uprooting your whole family into an unknown school situation that might not be anywhere near as good as what you’ve got. So—and my colleagues operated by the principle, which is the other side of coercive persuasion; if you really want someone to be productive and creative, make it easy for them to leave. It’s paradoxical but it’s true, because then if they stay, they’re staying because they want to, not because somehow you trapped them.
SCARPINO: Or you bought them.
SCHEIN: So my dean said, look, if Yale is good, go. When I turned Yale down, he said, we’re very glad you didn’t go. But he would not have tried to hold on to me. That is not how it would work. So that was why I stayed for another 10 years at MIT. But then I had a bad boss who really forced the issue and I had good fortune again. The then-President of MIT pulled me out into a three-year assignment as an undergraduate planning professor, which was like going to another university, and then coming back as department chairman, so I actually had several moves, but they were within MIT. So I never really had any impulse to go anywhere else, and no great offers.
SCARPINO: So by the time that you were chair of your department, you had been in the academy for a long time, you’ve done a great deal of research and study on organizations. How did you do as a department chair? Did it work when you had to do it?
SCHEIN: It worked very well but I didn’t like it. It was the same thing. I could do that—that seasickness study in the Army and be the captain, but I didn’t like it. I could be the department chairman. I had done the career anchor research by then and understood that the managerial career is a different career and you become an organization man, and I knew that this would be particularly true if you became a dean. So when I had sort of vague offers of deanships, I knew, turn those down flat. Being a department chairman you’re still in your field and you will revert back into your field. Being a dean, you’re forever out of it. So I found the department chairmanship fun if I managed it well and really focused on what difference I made and what difference I didn’t make. My sense of accomplishment was that I did commit myself to broadening from psychology, and so my real accomplishment was hiring Lotte Bailyn who was a sociologist, and John Van Maanen who was an anthropologist and a sociologist, and thereby shaping the future, not just at MIT. That turned out to have a huge impact on organizational behavior everywhere because, particularly John Van Maanen became a role model for doing ethnographic research, which at that time was not being done in business schools.
SCARPINO: Anthropological-type, ethnographic research.
SCARPINO: When you hired these folks, did you have some idea of where they could be headed?
SCHEIN: I knew where I wanted them to be headed, but I also had to fight through the tenure issue. Neither one of them was an easy case, so I think I paid my dues as a manager of dealing with the politics and all the heartaches of—because the heartaches were involved with not giving tenure to a couple of people, being against them. It’s interesting in writing the memoirs, I don’t know whether you’ve come to that, there’s a section where I try to explain what exactly justified my saying that another human being can’t have tenure here. That’s an enormous decision and the ultimate justification, which I think does say something about me, is they were excellent pedestrian, unimaginative, and the fact that they were unimaginative justified in my mind saying no. We do not want another colleague who is unimaginative. We’re in this business for growth and imagination and creativity, and I knew that Bailyn’s work was creative and Van Maanen was creative, but the two that I had turned down were not. So I feel comfortable in the end about that, even though at the time it caused a rift. I made some enemies that are still enemies. So I saw the whole political spectrum of what goes on in academia in our little department. I saw the vindictiveness of organizational cultures, how the economists with their quantitative approaches. We had this very good historian, Eleanor Westney, who had done work on—on the Japanese. She had put all her research into a very important book called Imitation and Innovation, and her tenure case almost foundered on the fact that this was a book and it had no numbers in it for a couple of young economists who said, you know, this is—this is not proper research. You know, it’s just history. (laughter) As if that were easy. Little did they know how hard it is to do history. Then the punchline is, 10 years later she had in the meantime had a very productive career at MIT and then went on to Toronto where her mother lived, needed to be closer to her mother, so she left MIT, but from my point of view, under with great glory. But I was sitting with one of these economists at lunch one day and I said, “Now it’s all said and done, what do you think about the Eleanor Westney case?” And he said, “It was always a mistake.” He never could see her having done anything useful. Now, why is this important to the story? Because it has totally colored my view of the problem with business schools, is that they have not at all been able to integrate the quantitative financial paradigm with the humanistic qualitative paradigm. They’re constantly fighting. I don’t see it as being particularly productive and I think it’s going to ruin a lot of business schools in the end because the quantitative is winning, more and more social psychological stuff is getting quantitative and less relevant. It’s really very sad to see how a model of science is pretending to be the only model of science, and I’m happy to be out of it because it made me angry for many years in my later years to see how in every tenure case you had to fight this stupid battle over and over again, over is there enough published research in referee journals instead of what is this body of work worth.
SCARPINO: It’s also one of the perils of interdisciplinary work. On the subject we talked a little while ago about experiential learning, and I noted when I looked through your CV, your impressive CV, that you had co-published with Warren Bennis, Personal and Organizational Change Through Group Methods: the Laboratory Approach, and Interpersonal Dynamics: Essays and Readings on Human Interaction. I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about the nature of your collaboration with him.
SCHEIN: He had been at MIT and got his degree at MIT while I was at Harvard. We didn’t know each other. When I came to MIT in ’56, he was at BU and I think in ’57 or ’8, he was hired into the MIT group, so he became a colleague and a peer, and there are some stories in his biography about whether or not the fact that we were sort of in parallel, was a problem. Allegedly McGregor wanted to get us both tenure at the same time and ran into some difficulty, that’s all in Warren’s stuff. I didn’t know any of this until I read about it in Warren’s stuff. But we got along very well because we both worked at Bethel in the T-groups. We were co-trainers and enjoyed being designers. We clicked conceptually, so we decided, why not write a book about our lab experiences. Then a couple of years later, we clicked again on being interested in the role of movies and literature and other kinds of things as teaching tools. We had acquired a couple of other faculty who were also interested, and the idea suddenly came up, why don’t we share all these non-academic things that we’re doing and see what we’ve got. We discovered all these interesting stories and cases and whatnot, and it kind of almost jelled on its own that if wrote some introductory chapters and then put in these materials, we would have a very interesting book called Interpersonal Dynamics, where each of the four of us would take a different section. Talked to a publisher, got a good response, and had then for the next, I guess, five, six years it went through, I think, three—at least three editions, what became for many, many courses the major textbook on interpersonal dynamics. But it kind of fell together from each of us being interested in literature rather than just formal research.
SCARPINO: I’d like to get you to talk for a few minutes about career anchors and if you could explain how that came about. It seems to me, based upon what we talked about earlier, that this turns out to be an example of creative opportunism, although I could have that wrong. You were looking for one thing and found something else.
SCHEIN: Right. But in this case it was not opportunism, it was forced on me. I think that there’s a difference between when I saw something, it was vague, and turned it into something. In the case of the career anchors, I had done this panel study to find out how people were indoctrinated into companies. Didn’t find anything. Brought them all back and began to hear these stories. In story after story after story, fell into some kind of a category of what that person was by age 35, 40, looking for in his career. These categories, people say, “Well, isn’t that kind of vague?” And I say, “Well, if you doubt it, go interview somebody and see what you think.” So a lot of skeptics did that. We’d go out and find somebody and interview them, and say, oh yeah, within 10 minutes I could classify. (laughter) So what do you do when—when you know the data is staring you in the face? You’ve got eight categories of types of careers, publish it, you know, because now it’s not something you’ve invented, it’s something that was forced—I did feel it was forced upon me, even the labeled career, anchor, was what the subjects used. It was not my word, it was their word. It taught me, I think, a lesson, that was similar to what I had learned from the POW’s; that when you’ve got a clear data set and it leads to certain conclusions and you publish it, it will work. Others will test it and will see it and will confirm it. If you’ve just invented a typology and throw it out there, maybe it will work, maybe it won’t. But I was at this point back to being the good researcher publishing as carefully as I could what I had found from these first initially 44 interviews and then subsequently lots of other research that I and others were doing, that kept confirming. People kept saying, “Well, aren’t there other anchors?” I had a good answer for that. If you’d have at least two interviews on another category, then bring it up as an anchor. Well, no one ever has.
SCARPINO: These panels originally were selected because they held masters’ degrees from …
SCHEIN: They were originally Sloan School second-year students. They didn’t have masters’ degrees, but they were all going out into the world of business.
SCARPINO: What, if anything, did you learn about leadership from your study that became career anchors?
SCHEIN: Well, the obvious thing you learn is how many different kinds of careers in leadership there are, and that we’re basing all our leadership theories on one career anchor category, namely the general manager category, because the entrepreneurs were totally different types of leaders. The technical functional types, depending on whether you were a sales manager or an engineering manager or whatever, those required different kinds of leadership. So it made leadership to me much more diverse. I could see how obsessed the field was with just identifying what will make a good manager, and that that was a very limited view of what leadership was all about, which I already knew from the military and so on. But, in the meantime, I had also been seduced into writing this book called Organizational Psychology, by a very persuasive editor. I didn’t want to write a textbook, and he said, oh, just write a hundred pages, you know.
SCARPINO: (laughter) That’s pretty far into the book-writing process.
SCHEIN: He said, “You must know a hundred pages’ worth.” So I thought about it and it was summer in Bethel and I could—so I just started and, sure enough, I had a clearly organized mind. I think it stimulated me to see, well, what do I know and can I put it into categories, and they turned out to be very good categories. I didn’t know I had that talent, but I do now know that one of the things I’m really good at is categorizing things into categories that make sense to other people. I looked at my first two versions of organizational psychology, and leadership is in the index, but it’s totally interwoven. The third edition, which was 1980, leadership is a whole chapter. So I think I was responding to the research that was getting more and more. We had Fred Fiedler. I knew him very well, by the way. I was glad to see that he’s one of your recipients and I don’t know what’s become of him, but …
SCARPINO: I interviewed Fred two years ago.
SCHEIN: Is he still in Seattle, and still …
SCARPINO: He was the last time I talked to him, a year and a half or so ago.
SCHEIN: His research was absolutely fascinating because it was not pedestrian and because it had clear outcomes. The team either won or it didn’t win. But then there were all these other studies and the field was just piling up data, so I thought, well, I’m obligated to summarize it. But I didn’t really like the field. It was—it didn’t seem to be asking the right questions. It was looking for heroes when I could see that—or in our Bethel groups we were very adamant about saying, it’s about leadership, not about the leader. All of us exercise leadership at different points in a process. So it’s pointless to try to figure out what a leader should be, we should all be concentrating on acts of leadership. I think that was the way I’ve always thought about it and, therefore, all the career anchors and these other things did is to reinforce that, yes, you can look for competencies and all this stuff, but that’s not the important stuff. The important stuff is the activity. I often thought of it as filling in the missing functions. Leadership is doing what’s needed that isn’t being done. When I got into the culture area, I then realized that I do have to talk about the leader who really changes things, which is a particular leadership act, and how that’s also symmetrically opposed to the leader who would love to change things, but the culture won’t let him. So leaders create cultures, but they’re victims of cultures. So that brought me back to thinking of individuals a little bit more. Until then, I think it was mostly the process.
SCARPINO: I’m going to ask you a little bit more about that in a minute. But I want to shift the process consultation, and I was prepared to ask you about Digital Equipment Corporation, but you reminded me in your session this morning how important that is to the development of your ideas related to process consultation, so I think the question I want to ask you is if you could just kind of talk about what you were doing with Digital Equipment Corporation and how that led you to think along the lines that became process consultation.
SCHEIN: I think the experiences with Digital at the time were just interesting experiences from which I learned. In retrospect and when I wrote the book about Digital, I give them much more importance then I did at the time, to the extent of saying that many of the most important things I’ve learned, I’ve learned from clients, not from my own experience, but from experiences that clients created by who they were and how they operated. The best example was Ken Olsen who, first of all, exhibited a level of trust in people that was extraordinary. It fitted the McGregor model of theory Y. But this notion of, I’m paying you well, you’ve been through an interview process, do your job, and only bother me if you can’t get your job done, was really quite extraordinary to think about and come and sit in on these Friday meetings and see what you can do. Why did he give me that trust? Because I was an MIT professor. He loved MIT. He trusted MIT people and so he gave me this carte blanche. Then the other very clear example in the field of surveying, giving, you know, attitude surveys, there’s always been a big controversy about what you do with the data. At the time, it was very clear that the executive who wanted the survey also put down a budget and a time table and so on. So when Ken Olsen asked me one year to survey the engineering department, which was several projects, several hundred people, I put this in my book, you know, as a major event. I asked him, “When would you like to see the data?” It seemed to me a perfectly reasonable question. He kind of reared up and said, “I don’t want to see the data.” You know, what the hell did this mean? It forced me to really invent a whole other way of thinking about surveying because every executive was looking at the data from the survey, and here’s an executive who says he doesn’t want to see it. I put that together with how else he thought about things and I realized that his model was, if he has me go out there and interview people, that that will stir the pot and problems will surface and problems will get solved, that he—he was wise enough to know that he’s probably not going to be able to solve whatever problems come up. So it would only be curiosity that would make him want to see them. Instead, he was saying, “Survey them,” and the hidden message was, “and do what you can to fix it.” So then I invented a new model of what to do with survey data. I would interview a group. When I had all the data, I would summarize it on paper, call that group together for a two-hour meeting, and say, “Here’s what you’ve said to me, and we have two tasks.” This was my invention. “Check the data collectively. Tell me whether I got it right. Two, let’s figure out what to do with it.” So then they would first go through the checking and we’d say, “Okay, this is what we’ve said. Now let’s look at the problems we’ve identified.” Immediately they would say, “Well, these three we can fix. You know, this is in our own bailiwick, so let’s fix them. What about all this stuff about the boss, you know, and all the things he does wrong,” which usually would get fed up and cause great defensiveness and whatnot. The group would say, you know, “Three of these things we’ve said are his personality. Let’s not touch those because that’s him and we’re going to have to live with it. But the way he runs meetings is really bad. We should try to give him some feedback.” I would say, “Well, how are we going to do it?” They had the choice, they could say, “Well, Ed, I think this is something you should say to him because I think if we say it”—and we might negotiate. All right. Say, “Wouldn’t it be better to have the whole group say it?” This wonderful—suddenly here was the same group that had generated the data, solving its problems and I realized, this is what Ken wanted. This is what he dreamed, is that if he shot me in there, the problems would not just be identified, but they would get to work on them. Policy issues, they could get fed up, you know, we are not paid enough. Well, that information could float up. But the group took responsibility. They would at the end of those meetings say, “Ed, this is the best meeting we’ve had in months.” Why, because they were working their own problems, instead of filling in a questionnaire and somebody else months later looks at it.
SCARPINO: So I’ve learned from talking to you today that I’m not supposed to lead the witness. Actually, I already knew that, but …
SCHEIN: It depends on the circumstances.
SCARPINO: Well, I’m going to use a term that a humanist would use just to see if I understand what you’re talking about. Is the difference between a traditional consulting model and process consultation, could I conclude that when one practices process consultation one is engaging in shared authority as opposed to the consultant just coming in and telling them what to do? It’s sort of a give and take?
SCHEIN: Yeah. That would be certainly—or another way to put that is, give the data to the people who can do something about it. It’s an accounting model that McGregor thought of. You know, most accounting models is the accountant, the person investigating goes down and finds out what isn’t working right. He gives that to his boss, who gives it—it eventually goes up to the senior person who then puts it down through the line, and maybe a month later or so the boss says, this is what they found out about us. McGregor said, wouldn’t it have been better if when the accountant saw the problem he fed it directly back to the boss and said, “Here’s a problem, what are you going to do about it?” Now that’s I guess sharing the authority, but more importantly I think it’s—it’s working at the level in the hierarchy where the problems can be solved, rather than engaging a lot of people who have nothing to do with it.
SCARPINO: I read and you also mentioned this morning that when you wrote about process consultation it was partly at the urging of a colleague of yours who more or less accused you of practicing pop culture with your clients, and that you actually published in 1969 was more or less a response to his dare, or a response to his challenge. Could you briefly talk about that?
SCHEIN: Well, I had had these kinds of experiences in digital and was a psychologist, and partly anthropologist—I understood the importance of working with the client in the client’s space, call it within their own culture, whatever, and must have realized that there’s no way someone looking at a consultant working with a company could figure that out. They would assume company has a problem, consultant gives advice. How would they know any different? So the motivation was, I do have a legitimate task here of explaining this and surrounding it with the relevant concepts that you need to understand. You need to understand how groups work, how decisions are made, you don’t—not anybody can walk in and do this. The fact that I was a trained social psychologist with clinical training mattered. So the booklet ended up being a mixture of case material, explanation, the underlying philosophy, and even some of the lecturettes that we had used in Bethel. I remember thinking that this rule in Bethel, we had the rule that you go through the T-group first and then you go have a short 20-minute lecture to help participants understand what might have gone on. It had to be no longer than 20 minutes, had to deal with just clarifying one concept, and we had been doing this now for several years at Bethel. So I had a store of these lectures in outline form. Some of those could be directly transposed into the book because they dealt with the relevant concepts; how groups make decisions and so on. So the book was easy to write. It was partly explaining and partly importing stuff that I already had. I thought that this was a very different way of approaching being a helper, and therefore felt it was very important once I had been challenged to really put it out there and explain it to the world.
SCARPINO: You used the word helper just now and would you sort of attribute it to sort of fifth concept that you developed that we’ll talk about in a minute, but at the time that you wrote this book in 1969, did you think of yourself as a helper? Were you already beginning to think along those lines?
SCHEIN: I don’t know, but I do have to confess something that bothered me a little, that in the helping book a lot of the fundamental models or terms that I actually use came from a 1960’s lecturette that Jack Glidewell, who was another trainer, gave on giving and receiving help. I had forgotten that the basic helping model was already there in that lecture, and then I kind of re-invented it 30, 40 years later. I was shocked to see that some of these little lectures, how groups make decisions and so on, were brilliant pieces of theory condensed into short lecturettes.
SCARPINO: I want to ask you about organizational culture. I looked up a list of your clients, which is long and impressive, but, you know, Digital Equipment Corporation, Ciba-Geigy, Apple, Citibank, General Foods, Proctor and Gamble, and the list goes on and on. I also read in the course of my research that many of your colleagues credit you with coining the term corporate culture or organizational culture. Do you accept credit for that? I mean, they can say whatever they want, but, I mean, it’s …
SCHEIN: It’s yes and no. I think that Elliott Jaques had used the changing culture of the faculty—factory. There were a couple of other people who had talked about union culture or work culture, but I think that the first book with that title, organizational culture, was Organizational Culture and Leadership. Then the book, The Corporate Culture Survival Guide, was several years later. Again, I think the terms were being used, but I don’t know whether you could find many articles or books that had them in print. So in that sense, I formalized it by putting it in print. Certainly, there was no invention there. We all knew the word culture and applying it to organizations was no big deal. But maybe actually I think what—what clicked was my three state—three level model. I hear over and over again that what people took out of the early culture literature was this idea that culture is a three-level phenomenon of, you know, artifacts, spouse values and basic assumptions, and that was again my categorizing genius at work. I think we all knew that culture was that way, but I somehow found a set of labels that made it more understandable.
SCARPINO: Did your work with anthropologists in any way influence your willingness to look at organizations through a cultural lens?
SCHEIN: From the beginning. Two or three of my friends at Harvard were anthropologists and sociologists, and one of the important books we read was Men Who Manage, which was really an ethnographic study, and William White had written the Street Corner Society. There was nothing new about applying culture to groups and organizations. I think what was new in my book was elaborating it as a textbook, in putting a lot of material and combining it with the word leadership, and saying, look, leaders create cultures and are victims of cultures and the best way to understand culture is—organizational culture—is through entrepreneurial behavior. I think being able to contrast Digital and Ciba-Geigy was important. One was an old company that defined leadership. The other was a young company where the leader defined culture. So I had a lot more raw material to put into a book, and I think that also, combined with by then having accepted clinical research as a paradigm and saying, look, building a whole theory on cases is okay. Let the world decide. I felt like writing it that way and that was that. I didn’t want to do a quantitative study like some others had done.
SCARPINO: Well, you mentioned the word leadership and I’ve read in a number of places a quote attributed to you that the only thing of real importance that leaders do is to create and manage culture.
SCHEIN: That was my position and I owned it and was willing to foist it on the world, yes. It’s a little bit vague and a little general, but I think it’s accurate. If you really want to know ultimately what makes leaders different from anybody else, what is it they do that’s different from anybody else, it’s they create and manage culture.
SCARPINO: Do you think that effective leaders understand that?
SCHEIN: No. No. But some do. I think one of the best books in the field and you ought to interview him because I think he deserves it, is Gerstner. He, in his book, Elephants Can Learn to Dance, where he describes how he got IBM back into a good company. He talks at length about how he had to evolve certain cultural themes, bring back some of the culture of IBM that had been lost. He understood perfectly well that it was all about culture. So I think the good ones do.
SCARPINO: What do you think that you learned—what do you think people could learn about leadership from reading your work on organizational culture?
SCHEIN: What they could learn about leadership is a great deal because I not only describe in the book how leaders create organizations and then infuse through their own values, those values into the organization, which, if they work, become the culture. People forget that originally it was just the leader’s values. I’ve had a lot of thesis students look at their own organizations historically by saying, well go back and find out what your founders were all about. My best example being Apple, where I had learned early in my consulting with Apple that Gerstner, I mean, Wozniak, wanted something that kids could use. He was a school-oriented person. A simple computer. Steve Jobs was a creative genius who thought he wanted a toy for yuppies. Those—that was tossed around. Now, what, how many, 50 years later, what have we got? We’ve got a whole bunch of toys for yuppies that are very simple to use. I don’t think that’s accidental. I think that somehow the mentality of Wozniak to kind of keep it simple, easy to use, and Jobs says, it’s got to be fun, that that just drove the process into these toys. Why did Apple succeed so much quicker? Because I think that vision got infused into all the engineers, all through the years, and so you could figure out the Apple culture by going back and seeing what… You could figure out the HP culture by going to Packard and Hewlett and seeing what did those people want. You won’t figure out all of it because some of it evolved, but you’ll see the essence. I had a woman from the post office department who was totally able to explain the post office by going back to the early postmaster generals. The woman yesterday from the Marine Corps used my model to analyze the culture of the Marine Corps and found it very easy to figure out if she looked historically at how… So history is, in fact, the best way to get a culture, not just any old history, but going back to the founders and see what they wanted.
SCARPINO: You published Organizational Culture and Leadership in 1985 and in your draft autobiography you called it your opus. Now, for a man who has published such a tremendous body of work you singled out this one piece and called it your opus. Why?
SCHEIN: It’s the only one that I took seriously enough to try to read almost everything and to try to really make it into a complete text, and go to the labor of… The other books were more creative impulses. This was—I felt it as a serious piece of work that had to be able to stand on its own, that had to be able to function as a textbook, that could not be easily dismissed as just a view. Maybe that’s the other thing. This was trying to take in all the views that I was aware of, of organizational culture. There were a few out there, but not many actually.
SCARPINO: I wanted to ask you one more question about culture, and then we’re going to wrap this up. I had this question sort of half-formed in the back of my mind until I heard you speak this morning. What brought it into focus for me was the term you used, safety culture, and having to do with some of your work with the nuclear industry and so on and so forth. In that context you talked about the relationship between the leader or the boss and the subordinate, and the complicating factor of technology, and I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about safety culture, the leader and the boss, and the complications brought about by technology.
SCHEIN: Well, the more complicated the technology, the more interdependence. If the boss does not understand, if the leader does not understand the interdependency, then the organization becomes vulnerable. This was even illustrated in that movie, The China Syndrome, where you had a person in the operating room seeing some vibrations that didn’t feel right, and having the boss say, it’s okay, don’t worry about it, and then finding out that that reflected a major flaw that could have created a major meltdown. I think the movie didn’t go as far as it could have. But that’s prototypical of this plant, every piece of it had to function. If some pumps weren’t functioning, then the plant was in jeopardy. I keep thinking that more and more parts of the world are that way, they—and it’s technology that’s making this happen. It’s not humans. It’s that machines are getting more complicated. If you look—my ’37 Chevrolet, I could fix it. If you open the hood of a car today…
SCARPINO: You can’t even recognize the parts.
SCHEIN: You just—and they’re all interdependent and you need all kinds of experts and computers all working together to figure out what’s going on in your car engine. So it says to me that systems are beginning more—to be more and more vulnerable to something not working, somewhere in the system. If I’m the leader in one of those systems, how do I ensure that if something isn’t working somewhere, I’ll find out about it, and find out about it in time? Now, I just remember this same point. I have a friend who is a consultant to some of the major financial institutions. He told me once that he asked the head of—it was like Goldman Sachs or one of these places, he said, what keeps you up at night? What the guy said was, that someone of my people out there, somewhere, is doing something that’s going to ruin us, and I won’t find out about it in time. That’s of course exactly what has happened over and over again in these big bank scandals and so on. Some rogue person does something and the company doesn’t find out about it until they’re deep in the hole.
SCARPINO: But the not finding out about it has something to do with the dynamics of the culture of that organization.
SCARPINO: So what have we learned about leadership from that?
SCARPINO: What have we learned about leadership from that?
SCHEIN: Well, that’s where—how we’re going to get back to safety culture. So safety culture, when you look at what in the nuclear plant is safety culture, it’s a description of what leadership at every level better do. You say, well, that’s too complicated. But they can’t simplify it. They can’t figure out how you can condense the concept like safety culture in a complex system unless you save—point one, the CEO has to be completely committed, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Point two, communications have to be continuous on a daily basis illustrating the CEO’s commitment. Point three, training has to be done at every level—so what safety culture ends up being is a prescription for how to run a company safely. But they can’t get it any simpler. All the parts have to function. I think we’ve lived with a lot of organizations over the last several hundred years that don’t require that degree of interdependent supervision, and as I said to the group this morning, the way the world is going, complexity is increasing, which means interdependence will increase, which means these communication chain issues will become more and more vulnerable unless we figure out how to get good communications through status barriers. That’s somehow what the last book, Humble Inquiry, will try to get at because I think the U.S. culture makes that particularly difficult because both pragmatism and individualism lead to minimizing interdependency and relationships, which means less emphasis on building a relationship where people will tell the boss what’s going on. So how are we going to train leaders to recognize that they must develop relationships with their subordinates to the degree that the subordinates will feel psychologically safe enough to tell the boss when something is out of kilter? To me that’s the problem and a huge challenge.
SCARPINO: Do you think it’s possible to use say, process consultation to facilitate?
SCHEIN: Well, process consultation only works when there’s a client who calls you in.
SCARPINO: That’s true. Although, you have worked for some of those that…
SCHEIN: Yes. I think—I think, for example, when I was on the advisory board of—of INPO, the Institute for Nuclear Power Operations, I knew that the key was to work with the CEO, and so I spent a lot of time develop—trying to develop a relationship with him, so that I could become his process consultant so that if and when he had questions about how to run his organization, he would think of me as being available to discuss those. Some of that happened. Some of the key people at INPO did say, look, how should we think about this? I would work with them, not tell them what to do, but work with them to help them figure it out. The same with my medical colleagues. I’m working with a couple of hospital executives and I’m working with them as a process consultant.
SCARPINO: In 2009, you published Helping: How to Offer, Give and Receive Help. You, in your autobiography, described that book in the following terms. You said, “I consider it my most important book even though it is the most simplistic in many ways.” Again, given the tremendous amount that you’ve published, why would you consider that to be your most important book?
SCHEIN: Because it deals with the process that applies to everything else. If you undo culture change, you need to learn how to do humble inquiry. If you want to improve medical safety, you need to do—learn how to do humble inquiry. Every place where I’ve been successful, the key skill underlying it all is humble inquiry. So I would say, you know, if you want to be a better leader, one of the things you’ve got to improve on is your own ability to be a humble inquirer, and ask—learn how to ask for help, not just give it.
SCARPINO: Do you think that’s a hard thing to do on our culture?
SCHEIN: Exactly. That’s why the book is really an attack on the culture. I think our culture makes it extremely hard and the only thing that will fix it is—we’re so pragmatic that if it becomes technologically imperative, then we’ll do it. Like I think we’ve learned that in the airlines. We’ve learned that the captain and the crew has to be in communication, there’s been enough deadly accidents where they weren’t, that they now emphasize, you know, that most, I think, airline captains who are trained today learn that they have to humiliate themselves with their crew in some way to make sure that the crew will tell them when something’s going wrong. Medical schools are beginning to change the way—the reason doctors are so arrogant is because the professors who taught them humiliated them and made them feel, you know, little, so that they then defensively did that to their underlings and patients. There’s quite a bit of movement going on in the medical field, particularly in Boston, by a man by the name of Lucian Leep that talks about civility and doctors developing better manners, not having all these temper tantrums in the surgery, learning how to be more humble with patients. So I think there’s movement, but only where people really see a problem.
SCARPINO: I am going to ask you two more questions and then wrap this up because I know you’ve got to catch a plane.
SCHEIN: Well, and I’d like to take a quick bathroom break and then let’s do the wrap-up.
SCARPINO: I’m going to hit pause.
All right. Let’s see if I can get this thing to go again. We’re now recording. So, as promised, I want to ask you two final questions, which are related. The first one is, is there anything you’d like to add to what we talked to? Anything I didn’t give you a chance to say or that you want to elaborate on?
SCHEIN: Well, yes and no. I think this process that you’ve done with me leads to lots of further thoughts, but I think nothing that stands out that’s missing in this particular piece of the story. But I can think of other elements. We didn’t really talk about my sense of myself as an artist. My discovery that when I retired from teaching that I didn’t miss teaching, when I ought to—that I really am a better coach than a lecturer or teacher, and that really I’m a writer. I’m slowly getting comfortable with the fact that I’m a writer. So am I a novelist? No. I’m a writer about concepts and I’m good at describing concepts and I’ve had a lot of success making concepts clear. But I’m sort of building that as my identity in more recent years.
SCARPINO: Last question. Is there anything that I should have asked you that I just didn’t ask? Maybe I just didn’t have the insight or didn’t read enough.
SCHEIN: Well, I think the question that you maybe should have probed more is whether there were more life experiences that shaped the particular way that I approach problems. But it would have taken 10 more hours, so I don’t—I think you have an impossible task. I’ve been writing on these memoirs and I have 350 single-spaced pages. There is no way that an interview, even a four-hour interview, could do that. So are you missing anything important? I’m not sure you are. I think you’ve covered very well the sort of essential points about how I approach things and how I had—what I hope is clear, it’s getting clear to me, is that even though I’ve worked in five different areas, they really are quite connected, that I sometimes thought, am I an intellectual dillettante? What’s going on here? But the answer, I think, is no, I’ve let the world and the data lead me, and one thing really led to another. Rather than—what I didn’t want to be was the kind of academic who took one area and beat it to death, which a lot of my colleagues said is the way to do it. That never suited me. I was good at lateral thinking, so if I got interested in something new, I thought it was good to follow it, and then found that I enjoyed that more, in a way I didn’t. We didn’t talk about the economics of it. Where were the rewards? They came right off the bat from royalties and consulting. So I didn’t have any reason to believe that I was doing anything wrong from an economic or academic point of view. But I certainly felt different. I did feel what I was doing at MIT was very different from what other schools were doing that were hunkering down, doing a little more psychology, a little deeper psychology, while I was pushing for sociology and anthropology.
SCARPINO: So how do you think other psychologists look at your career and the body of your work because you didn’t fit the mold?
SCHEIN: The ones who are applied in orientation love me and think of me as a father and grandfather of the field of organizational development and so on. The traditional psychologists like the Jeff Feffers at Stanford and so on, I think are totally dismissive. It has struck me that I’ve been out in Palo Alto for a year now. I have not been invited to do anything at the Stanford Business School. Nothing. Except by Dave Bradford, who is running the T-group program for the students, and the leadership program. So I have had contact with him and his group, and with a woman whom I met at a conference at MIT, who’s running a big international leadership program, but she’s non-faculty. So the degree to which I’m invisible to the graduate school of business at Stanford, is clear data as to what my more traditional colleagues think of me. They may not dismiss me, but they also have no interest in me. Nobody has asked me to come and do a seminar for the graduate students or anything like that.
SCARPINO: Ed, thank you very much. Before I turn the recorder off, I want to say, thank you on behalf of myself, and the International Leadership Association and the Tobias Center, for being kind to sit with me for almost three and a half hours.
SCHEIN: I enjoyed it.
SCARPINO: You struggled through a scratchy throat, and I will go ahead and turn this off.
SCHEIN: I may be back to you on more guidance of what to do with the memoirs.