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December 2010
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TD Magazine

Edgar Schein

Schein is a well-established and prolific researcher and consultant on organizational learning, culture, and development; process consultation; and career dynamics. He has consulted for major corporations such as Apple, General Foods, and Citibank. Schein has authored several books, including The Corporate Culture Survival Guide (Jossey-Bass, 1999), and most recently, Helping: How to Give, Offer, and Receive Help (Berrett-Koehler, 2009), and the 4th edition of Organizational Culture and Leadership (Jossey-Bass, 2010). In 2000, Schein was honored with ASTD’s Lifetime Achievement Award in Workplace Learning and Performance.

Q| Could you briefly explain process consultation?

I realized that what I was doing as a consultant was facilitating the process of problem solving in individuals, groups, and larger units by being there and seeing what they needed, and supplying the missing functions. I came to call that "process consultation" because it dealt with the human and group processes rather than the content of what the people were working on.

That distinction is still not clear to people that the consultant doesn't have to be an expert in the client's content. But the consultant has to be very good at managing the relationship, sensing where the client is, and helping in a way that engages the client's problem, rather than displaying the consultant's expertise.

As I argue in Helping, you have to make sure the client feels okay about the whole process because asking for help in the social order of things puts you down. We live in a culture in which being on top of your job is considered the norm. If I'm a manager and I need help, that puts me in a subordinate, vulnerable position. The consultant needs to engage in humble inquiry and start with humility. That makes the client feel better and gives the consultant better information on what is needed.

Q| How are employee motivation and organizational culture linked? What are ways in which leaders can effectively manage change?

When managers say, "I want to create a culture of motivation or commitment," that indicates to me that they don't understand culture. Culture is not something that you create or want. Culture is the residue of your history so far.

If your organization has been an autocratic, low-trust organization, how you'd change that is by very slowly identifying real problems and new behaviors, train people in some of the new behaviors, and if the business problems get solved, then the employees begin to internalize it, and eventually they believe that it's a good way to work. Then someone on the outside looking into the organization would notice that the culture has changed.

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But change happens through identifying a business problem that leads to a behavioral solution that is enforced by senior management. Coercing behavior change won't happen unless employees believe that management really means it this time. Motivation and culture are linked through this complicated process of identifying problems, building new behavior, and then enforcing it. We have to see change as a process.

Q| What significant trends have you noticed in the evolution of organizations and the tasks that they face?

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Four trends are very obvious to me. One is that all work is getting more complex. More experts are involved, which means that more occupational cultures are involved.

That kind of occupational mix is increasingly happening in all industries, which leads to the second trend of globalization and multiculturalism. It's both new occupations and more nationalities, religions, ethnic groups, and so on, producing teams that have to work together.

The third trend is information technology, which means that work may not be co-located in the future, which will raise even tougher multicultural problems.

The fourth trend is social responsibility. The whole human resource function is shifting toward, "How do we, as an organization, manage not just staying profitable and growing, but also becoming more socially responsible in a more global, decentralized, multicultural, and socially networked world?"

Q| Are you currently working on any new books or projects?

The 4th edition of Organizational Culture and Leadership and the Helping book are both out.

One of my chapters in Helping focuses on defining a team as a group of people who, because of the work they do, have to be in perpetual, mutual helping relationships with each other. My next book will probably be an exploration of how one can create relationships that enable real teamwork, and how leaders can be more helpful to their subordinates and more willing to get help from their subordinates, because if they won't do that, the organizations won't function well.

About the Author

The Association for Talent Development (ATD) is a professional membership organization supporting those who develop the knowledge and skills of employees in organizations around the world. The ATD Staff, along with a worldwide network of volunteers work to empower professionals to develop talent in the workplace.

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