Edgar Schein Oral History Interviews


Part one

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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.

SCHEIN: Right.

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.

SCHEIN: Right.

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?


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?

SCHEIN: Right.

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.

SCHEIN: Exactly.

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?

SCHEIN: Right.

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: Rogers?


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.