Edgar Schein investigates organizational culture, process consultation, the research process, career dynamics, and organization learning and change. At the present he is Sloan Fellows Professor of Management Emeritus at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. He is also the Founding Editor of Reflections, the Journal of the Society for Organizational Learning, devoted to connecting academics, consultants, and practitioners around the issues of knowledge creation, dissemination, and utilization. Schein has been a prolific researcher, writer, teacher, and consultant. Besides his numerous articles in professional journals he has written fourteen books including Career Dynamics (1978, 2006), Organizational Culture and Leadership (1985, 1992, 2004, 2010), Process Consultation Revisited (1999) , The Corporate Culture Survival Guide (1999, 2009). His consultation focuses on organizational culture, organization development, process consultation, and career dynamics. Recent clients include: Con Edison of New York, Schlumberger, Detroit Edison, the Institute for Nuclear Power Operations, Shell, Amoco (before the BP Merger) the Economic Development Board of Singapore, and the International Atomic Energy Agency (on the subject of “safety culture”). Ed Schein has received many honors and awards for his writing, most recently the Lifetime Achievement Award in Workplace Learning and Performance of the American Society of Training Directors in 2000, the Marion Gislason Award for Leadership in Executive Development from the Boston University School of Management Executive Development Roundtable, and Life Time Achievement Award as Scholar/Practitioner of the Academy of Management. His most recent book is Helping: How to Offer, Give, and Receive Help (2009), which he discusses with Erik for this interview.
[Bio adapted from Blog Business World.]
Ed, why did you write this book?
ES: It’s an extension of writing I had done on process consultation. I learned from my experience as a consultant that if you’re going to be helpful to an organization, you really have to understand the dynamics of the helping process. With my process consultation books, Process Consultation Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, and Process Consultation Revisited, I focused on what the consultant does. In the helping book, I broadened it to the dynamics of offering or receiving help in any relationship.
You say that we’re hard-coded to help. A friend recently told me that at 18 months, a baby will pick up the pencil that is dropped by a doctor and try to give it back, which seems to indicate early development of a helping gene.
ES: I can’t comment on the neurology or genetics of it, but certainly in every society there are rules indicating that if someone asks for help, you have to respond. What goes wrong, as I try to show in the book, is that sometimes the impulse to help is triggered by something that was not actually a need. The helper thinks he sees a need, offers help, wades in, and finds that the person is offended, insulted, and says aggressively, “I don’t need any help.” Why? Because the counterpoint in the culture is that we’re all supposed to be independent and not need help.
Right. I’ve been asked, “What’s the most important thing you’ve learned?” I realized by my mid-thirties that it’s to ask for help. That’s a big thing. Culturally, particularly as Americans, we have to be, as you say, self-reliant and independent. This notion of asking for help goes against our cultural grain.
ES: That’s correct. I would add that the most important thing we have to learn is how to communicate clearly about this. At the root of when help goes wrong are assumptions, miscommunication, second-guessing, or rhetorical questions. Help goes wrong when we offer something that wasn’t asked for or when we don’t know how to ask for the right things. I notice this particularly with computer consultants. When I have a problem with a computer, I rarely get the kind of help I’m looking for. Either I haven’t said it right, or they’ve assumed I have a problem that I don’t have and they tell me too much and we get into over-help. So communication is at the root of it all.
When someone asks me for help, you state that there are three stances I could take. Could you explain those?
ES: If someone asks for help, be aware that the person will feel “one down.” He will have lost a moment of status because he’s in need of something and therefore is making himself dependent on you. You have three choices of how you can deal with that dependency.
You can jump in, assume that what the person has asked you is what he really needs, be the expert, and give him an answer. He wants directions, or he wants some advice and you know something, so that’s what you give him. I call that the expert role.
Or you could assume that since this person asked for help, he’s really in trouble and you’d better try to figure out what’s bothering him, diagnose the situation, and not only give advice, but even give some prescriptions for the future. I call that the doctor role. I’m sure you recognize these roles. We’ve all fallen into them very quickly, particularly with spouses and children. That’s where the kid asks for some help and we become the doctor and diagnose all sorts of things which may or may not be relevant.
Both of those roles are dangerous because the client may not have asked for the right thing. That brings us to the process consultation role. I have to assume that we may not have accurately communicated yet, so I’d better ask a couple more questions. I have a wonderful example of this. A woman stopped outside my house and asked, “How do I get to Massachusetts Avenue?” Rather than telling her, which would have been long and awkward and difficult, I said, “Where are you trying to get?” She said, “Downtown Boston.” I noticed that she was on the road to Boston and said, “Well, you’re already on the road. You don’t need to go to Massachusetts Avenue. You just stay on the road you’re on.”
Now to me, that’s the prototype issue. The question, “Where are you trying to get?” was crucial for me to be helpful to her. Once I knew where she was trying to get, I could then switch into the doctor or the expert role. But I had to be sure that we were working on the right problem before I took on one of those other roles. So the basic argument is: always ask another question, always start in the inquiry role before you jump into the expert or doctor role.
I learned that the hard way in consulting with executives. The presenting problem is rarely what they really are worried about. You have to go through a lot of inquiry before you get to what’s really bothering them.
You call that humble inquiry. Why? And what does that entail?
ES: The humbleness has two important elements to it. First of all, it signals that I’m really interested in the person and want to find out how I can be helpful. That puts us back on an equal status. By lowering myself momentarily, I have enabled the client to feel okay about having had to ask for help. If I just jump in with an answer, I reinforce the one-downness of the client and exercise my power, but run the big risk that it may not be helpful. So the humility is both to clarify the communication and to equilibrate the relationship. Because once it’s equal, the client is more likely to tell me what’s really bothering him or her.
I love that notion and it obviously plays out, as you say, in individual, group, and organizational levels. Evening out the power balance seems counterintuitive because we’re so obsessed with experts in our society, we always relish the moment when we can be the expert.
You’re saying that the first role of the expert is to sort of de-expertise herself?
ES: And build a communication bridge to the client that enables the expert to figure out what they have to do.
I love that. You had an example about a child who asked for help with homework but actually wanted to talk about some social issues at school. The homework was just a guise?
ES: A lead-in, building the relationship. Asking for help is so awkward. We are often likely to produce, initially, a legitimate question when underneath it is the more serious question. We feel uncomfortable asking the serious question until we’re sure that the helper is sincere in wanting to help us and is paying attention. So the humble inquiry unlocks the communication channel.
That first question from the client is often a test question?
Testing the helper’s availability, willingness, or even knowledge about the subject?
ES: Even one step beyond that, it may be sincere, but the wrong question. I’m frequently asked to help with culture change programs. It takes me quite a bit of humble inquiry to get the client to see that culture change is not actually what they want or need. Usually, they’ve got a business problem that they’re trying to solve. They’re mislabeling it as a culture issue. If I went straight into the culture stuff, I would be exercising my expertise, but in the end I would not be helping. That often happens with consulting projects. We give the client exactly what they ask for, but it turns out later to have been the wrong thing. I think that’s professionally our fault for not having done enough humble inquiry to find out what actually was needed.
Consultants often have very elaborate assessments. Maybe we’re getting into dangerous territory here. You are the man who wrote a lot about the role of assessment in culture change, right?
ES: That’s correct. The problem is that the assessment may not be helpful. It gets us money as consultants, and it produces very interesting information, but in many, many cases where I’ve come into companies after they’ve had an assessment, I find that they don’t know what to do with it. It wasn’t really what they wanted. Somewhere along the line, the expert assessor should have been asking, “Why are you doing this? What are you trying to accomplish? What’s the problem you’re trying to solve?” That would have been, professionally, the more correct thing to do. Then, if the client and the consultant both agree, “We need an assessment,” and we’ve both worked out what that assessment should be like and what we should do with the data, then we can move forward.
But the client has to own the decision to do the assessment and we can only get to that point with a period of humble inquiry to find out what’s really going on. Does that make sense?
It makes a tremendous amount of sense, but considering the number of change initiatives that go on in large organizations, I shudder to think of the low percentage of times that what you’re describing actually happens.
ES: And the low percentage that they’re actually helpful. The fact that they occur doesn’t mean that they’re helpful. So I’m trying to be specific when I define help. Help is something that you couldn’t do for yourself.
Organizations often do need help, but a lot of what we call consulting is, in fact, something other than help. It’s service or it’s being a surrogate manager. There are lots of activities that are not helpful and a lot of those go on under the label of consulting.
I think we should talk about why helping is a particularly growing need in the organizational world that is evolving. In the helping book, there’s only one chapter on organizational stuff. But since I’ve published the book, I’ve realized that the leaders of the future are going to have to be much better at both giving help, and even more importantly, receiving help. They’re going to be in complex worlds where they won’t be able to be the doctor or the expert.
Right, but our society says that if you are a leader, you are an expert, most of the time.
ES: Leaders of the future will have to learn how to become expert process consultants, not necessarily expert content decision makers. Their subordinates will know more, so good communication with their subordinates will be essential. They’ll have to set up processes where they will ask the subordinates for help on the content in order to get the right decision made. Helping skills will become an essential part of any leadership role.
At some level that’s quite radical.
ES: Exactly, and that’s why I bring it up as a challenge. The reality is, all the fields and business functions are becoming more complex. Information technology is destroying the borders of organizations so that a lot of stuff goes on in networks where you never meet the people involved.
Globalism is making most business units multicultural. You have task forces with people from four or five countries, or occupations. There are surgical teams where an American surgeon, an Indian anesthesiologist, and a Latino nurse have to figure out how to work together coming from different cultures. These three factors, plus all the social responsibility stuff means that the leader of the future is going to have to be an expert at multicultural processes. That will lead to the realization that that leader will have to know how to get information and that means he’ll have to be a humble inquirer. The leader will still be accountable, but will play the leader role in a very different way.
In light of Tom Peters’ focus on the importance of women as leaders and the lack of them in CEO positions, certainly in America, are women better at this helping mode than men? Or is that a drastic overgeneralization?
ES: No, some of the book reviewers said, “This is just a male book. Women don’t have these problems.” [Laughter] Women may indeed find it easier to ask for help because they’ve gotten used to it. However, once they’ve asked for help, the psychological/social dynamics involved in putting themselves one down and making themselves vulnerable to the helper is exactly the same. That dynamic doesn’t change, only their willingness to be more open in asking for it. I’m not arguing the case here for cultural variation or gender variation. I’m saying in all cultures, the act of asking for help, whether you’re a man, woman, or child, is an imbalance in the social order and it will only work well if it’s put back into balance by something that the helper does.
I’m amazed that as a species that’s so heavily reliant upon help, that we can get it so wrong.
ES: Every society, whether we’re talking about gorillas or chimpanzees or whatnot, where there’s a fair amount of self-conscious intelligence involved, has had to develop rules of social order, or else there would be chaos. Even societies of wolves have rules about how you behave toward each other. One of those rules is if you’re asked for help, you either must give it, excuse yourself, or in some way deal with it. You can’t just walk away. That’s probably wired in, that you have a response.
However, the culture on top of that says most of the time you shouldn’t need help. So I wonder if our willingness to help actually becomes a cultural problem. That if we’re never asked for help, we feel unfulfilled.
Yeah. No good deed goes unpunished.
ES: The importance of this book is to say, look, the willingness to help can be a dangerous impulse. Don’t exercise it until you know that you’re going to be helpful.
Your book includes five or six mini case studies of help in action. One involves your wife, and I’m sorry to hear that she passed on. You describe helping her manage her health problems and you share what you learned.
AARP says that the number of unpaid caregivers in the United States tops 65 million. One-third of those caregivers are men. I think men have a harder time being caregivers than women. All of us do—men and women—but it’s because we don’t know how to help, perhaps?
ES: Yes. The desire to help varies. Some of us are more interested in being helpers than others. No matter where you are on that scale, the dynamics of what goes on between you and the client will be the same. So with my wife, I knew that it was difficult for her to ask for help because that would put her one down. The case that particularly interested me is if I’m aware that it’s going to be hard for her to ask for help, can I invent a way of enabling her to get what I know she needs without having to ask for it?
That means I have to second-guess, but with some knowledge because I’ve been observant. I gave an example of knowing that she would periodically need something from the kitchen, which is down a level. She was stuck on the second floor. Rather than waiting for her to have to ask, I would periodically say, “I’m going downstairs. Is there anything you need?” That enabled her to ask without having to initiate, put herself one down, and feel that she was burdening me by running me down to the kitchen.
By understanding the dynamic, I felt I could be helpful without putting her into the position of having to ask for help because I knew that would make her uncomfortable. With someone who is truly dependent, like my spouse was, the caregiver has to be aware of the dynamics and figure out how to be helpful without being insulting or offensive.
That’s very tricky. I did a search on “no good deed goes unpunished.” One of the first things that popped up was a story from a psychiatric resident working in a hospital. There’s a female patient who’s all flustered and angry. She says to him, “You think you’re so much better than I am … You have never suffered … I have suffered terribly!” Then she says something about being penniless and depressed. Wanting to help, as she’s leaving, he gives her a twenty-dollar bill. The next morning he finds out that this woman has lodged a formal complaint against him.
ES: Good example.
He’s thinking he’s going to make her life a little easier, maybe provide bus fare, but she doesn’t see it that way at all. If only everyone could read something like that before they think they’re going to be helpful. We’re all guilty of it at some point. We all want to help and think we know how, but it goes wrong a lot more often than it has to.
ES: That’s a good way of putting it. I want to again emphasize the fact that leaders are probably the least trained in this dynamic and yet are most in need of it in the future.
I wonder, given the digital nature of the world, if that’s harder and harder to do?
ES: I think so.
What you describe relies on real, face-to-face contact to establish that trust at the beginning. It requires building the relationship so that you can really find out what the person needs.
ES: That, too, may be a misconception. I’ve had several email conversations with people where it was very easy to ask humble questions. In some ways, it could even be easier to ask a humble question in an email than face-to-face. I don’t think we should second-guess the leader, either. It may well be that one way that leaders will deal with this is to be less face-to-face.
Very interesting. Counterintuitive.
ES: If I send you a message, “I need help,” I don’t have to literally humiliate myself because it’s just a bunch of words. If we’re face-to-face, the dynamic is much more powerful. It’s clear to me that the world of my grandchildren is a totally different world. We really need to get acquainted with it rather than complain about it.
Right. I read an article recently about the need for playground refs now because kids can’t seem to settle their differences. We always say, “What’s wrong with kids these days? We could handle our differences at the playground.” But as you say, rather than looking at it in that negative way, it’s just better to try to understand what’s really happening now.
ES: Maybe that need for playground refs has to do with multiculturalism. Maybe we haven’t noticed how difficult it is for kids from many different religions, nations, parents’ occupations, and so on, to form their own social order.
That’s a very good point. People forget that when they were growing up, everybody probably looked like them.
My only other point is that if teamwork, because of complexity, gets to be more important in the world—particularly with, for example, surgical teams—the ability to be mutually helpful across cultural boundaries will be a huge challenge. We haven’t yet invented how to do that. I don’t think we know how to make a multicultural team quickly effective in mutual helping relationships.
I see a job opportunity there, perhaps a cultural specialist that acts in the same capacity as the playground ref we mentioned. Ed, this has been fun. Thanks for your time.
ES: Thank you.