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Edgar Schein: Organizational Culture

Edgar Schein is a social psychologist who has introduced a raft of ideas around organizational culture, and placed his thinking at the heart of the subject. He was brought to The Sloane School of Management by Douglas McGregor, where he was a contemporary of Warren Bennis. Though less widely known, he seems to me to be every bit their equal.

Edgar Schein

Short Biography

Edgar Schein was born in 1928 in Zurich and moved to the United States. There he became a citizen and studied Social Psychology, gaining a BPhil from the University of Chicago, and MA from Stanford, and his PhD in Social Psychology from Harvard, in 1952.

Following this, he spent four years in the US army, studying both leadership and, importantly for his later thinking, the rehabilitation of prisoners of war (POWs) returning from Korea under the influence of brainwashing.

In 1956, Douglas McGregor invited him to join the faculty of the Sloan School of Management at MIT, where he became a professor in 1964 and chaired the Organizational Studies Group from 1972 to 1982. He remains an emeritus professor there.

Edgar Schein’s Work

Edgar Schein’s work is deeply concerned with organizational culture and its relationship to behaviours, motivation, learning, management and leadership, and careers. Let’s survey six big themes in his work.

Organizational Culture

Schein sees culture as the dominant force within an organization, and he defines it as a pattern of shared assumptions, about how we relate to one another, how we perceive truth and reality, the balance of task focus with growth and fulfilment, and others. These affect how people behave and the values and social norms that evolve.

His primary thinking was captured in his best known book, Organizational Culture and Leadership, originally published in 1985, but now in its fourth edition. In a later article, ‘Organizational Socialization and the Profession of Management‘ he argued that integrating with an organizational culture requires undoing, ‘unfreezing‘ prior cultural norms, and establishing new ones. He related this to what he learned during the Korean War, about brainwashing, and suggested there are three responses to these pressures.

  1. Rejection of the organization’s imposed norms and culture: ‘rebellion
  2. Selective adoption of certain values and norms: ‘creative individualism
  3. Full acceptance of the new culture: ‘conformity

Psychological Contract

In another of Schein’s important text books, Organizational Psychology, (1980), he focused on the idea of a ‘psychological contract’ between an employer and its employees. He credits the original idea to Chris Argyris, but develops it considerably. The psychological contract is a set of undocumented expectations between the organization and its employees. Where expectations match, there will be harmony: where they mismatch, problems arise, such as disloyalty, under-performance, and industrial disputes.

Management Cultures

Within an organization, Schein identified three management cultures that co-exist and, to a degree, compete unhelpfully with one another. Organizational Learning will come as people evolve their organizational culture to properly integrate these three cultures.

  1. Operator Culture: local cultures within operating units
  2. Engineering Culture: technicians and experts seeking optimal technical solutions, mistrustful of the soft roles of people in driving the right answers
  3. Executive Culture: managers focused on financially-driven metrics

Organizational Learning

Under the pressures of constant change, organizations can only thrive when they learn quickly. The problem is that it is frustrated by employees’ and managers’ fear of change. He calls this fear ‘Anxiety 1’ and argues that for learning to occur, it must be overwhelmed by ‘Anxiety 2’ – the fear of the consequences of not learning, and therefore of not transforming to meet the new realities. He therefore advocates the need for creating a culture where people can feel safe to learn and experiment, as a way of overcoming Anxiety 1 without the need to induce greater levels of fear.

Motivational Theories

Not surprisingly for someone who came to the Sloan School at the behest of Douglas McGregor, Schein’s fertile mind also paid attention to motivation. He created two contributions. The first was to group models of workplace motivation into three categories, and the second was to add a fourth category.

  1. The Rational-Economic Model
    McGregor’s Theory X, building on Taylor’s approaches to Scientific management suggest we act out of compliance with incentives of coercion.
  2. The Social Model
    Mayo’s Hawthorne experiments suggested we respond to social cures, which was in part captured in McGregor’s Theory Y.
  3. The Self-Actualizing Model
    Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and, to some extent, McGregor’s Theory Y focused on our need for something more than social or economic benefit.
  4. Schein’s fourth category really seems obvious from any distance…
    The Complex Model
    We are all subject to a whole array of needs, expectations, desires, and motivations, and a wise manager will engage with all the subtlety and complexity of each individual. For me, Self Determination Theory is a good introduction to that necessity.

Career Anchors

We all have perceptions about ourselves. Carol Dweck has shown that we are most successful when we feel free to enlarge these as we learn, rather than see ourselves in a fixed way.

In his 1985 book, Career Anchors: The Changing Nature of Careers, (now in a new edition), Schein documented, first five, then three more, perceptions that act as anchors in the career choices we make. The original five were:

  1. Their technical-functional competence
  2. Their general managerial competence
  3. Their need for autonomy and independence
  4. Their need for security and stability
  5. Their entrepreneurial spirit and sense of creativity

The three later components are:

  1. Their desire to give service or their dedication to a cause
  2. Their need for challenge for its own sake
  3. Their desired lifestyle.

What is Culture?

Excerpts from an Interview with Edgar Schein

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Styles of Management

The Management Pocketbooks Pocket Correspondence Course

This is part of an extended management course. You can dip into it, or follow the course from the start. If you do that, you may want a course notebook, for the exercises and any notes you want to make.


In the ‘good old days’ – good old days for managers, that is – there was one style of management:

Tell them what to do – expect them to do it – punish them if they don’t

Life must have been easy then for managers: no need to motivate people (more on that in coming weeks), no back chat and alternative ideas from staff, no worry about giving offence, and high levels of compliance.

Scientific Management

On the other hand, how efficient were workers then? Frederick Winslow Taylor wanted to apply the principles of science to management and was the first person to try to analyse an organisation, test his ideas with experiments, and document the results.

‘Taylorism’ treated people as cogs in a machine. Optimise all aspects of the process, including people, to get the best results. So Taylor introduced time and motion studies to optimise how workers did things, and piece rates as incentives for workers. He said ‘do it this way and you will get your reward’. This was scientific management.

Humanistic Management

Scientific Management largely failed. Yes, it led to the hugely successful production line and arguably to just-in-time concepts too. Six Sigma, TQM and Lean can all draw their origins from scientific management too.

But it failed as regards people. Elton Mayo was a follower of Taylor and tried to apply Taylorist principle in the Hawthorne Lighting Plant. He discovered that changing light levels changed work rates. But it didn’t matter how you changed the light levels, as long as you engaged the workers in the process. What mattered was engaging people. It still does – that’s why staff engagement is such a big deal.

Theory X or Theory Y

The tension between task focus and people focus was crystallised by Douglas McGregor in his models of management style called Theory X (task, transaction, process, incentive focused) and Theory Y (people, consensus, motivation, satisfaction focused).

These are reflected in two contrasting styles of day-to-day management: Management by Objectives (MBO) and Management by Walking About (MWA).

MBO is all about setting clear objectives to staff and supporting them in achieving them – it is formal, transactional and has been seen as highly successful. For example, Bill Packard attributed the success of Hewlett Packard in its heyday to MBO.

But strangely, Bill Packard was well known for wandering around all areas of his business, chatting with people, building relationships, sharing ideas and offering inspiration.

Balance

There is no ‘right’ style of management. We each need to find the right balance, that works for us. We also need to adapt that balance to each individual and to changing circumstances.

Balance of Management Styles

Further Reading 

You may also like the Pockeblog articleIt’s time to get enabling

Three Six Sigma Articles

  1. Belt up and Reduce Errors
  2. The DMAIC Solution Process
  3. Six Tools from Six Sigma
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