Interview with Edgar and Peter Schein

Reading time: 11 minutes

Edgar H. Schein  is Professor Emeritus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Sloan School of Management and he has left a prominent mark in the field of organizational development especially about career developmentgroup process consultation, and organizational culture. He is widely recognized to be one the of the greatest experts in organizational culture and OD and leadership. Together with his son, Peter, he now leads the Organizational Culture and Leadership Institute with the aim of enhancing improving leadership by deeply understanding organizational culture and career development.

Peter A. Schein is a strategy consultant in Silicon Valley.  With his over thirty years of experience in strategy, marketing and corporate development, he helps start-ups and expansion-phase technology companies. Peter is now focused on the organizational culture challenges that growth prompts in innovation-driven enterprises.

In a Zoom call, Professor Luca Brambilla, Director of the Academy of Strategic Communication, had the chance to interview them about one of the most known subjects for which father and son are widely recognized: their vision of organizations, leadership and communication argued in the books “Humble Inquiry 2nd Edition (2021)” and “Humble Leadership (2018)”.

How can we manage to run an organization in a period where all we see in uncertainty and there is a pandemic going on?

E.S.: What Peter and I have observed is that the existence of interaction platforms like Zoom and so on has made it possible for most businesses to invent ways of connecting with their employees that make it possible to run the business despite strict lockdowns and stay at home orders.

P.S.: You see, the deep philosophical distinction we emphasize is between people maintaining professional distance in their roles, as opposed to people focusing on building personal relationships, whether it is on Zoom or in person. companies are starting to recognize that personal relationships are more effective than transactional role relationships, and the pandemic may have actually accelerated this recognition.

I agree with the two of you so much that to me it would have been unthinkable to have this kind of meeting on Zoom if it wasn’t because of the pandemic. Moreover, us Italians love human contact and hugs, do you think we have to learn a new language, so start learning to build relationships through Zoom?

E.S.: Just to reinforce the Italian culture and ideas, many years ago I was familiar with some research between a Canadian Parent and an Italian subsidiary, and the Italians felt disrespected because the Canadians would only send them messages instead of visiting!

P.S.: I think that the pandemic is forcing us, in some respects, to be more mindful in general and to reflect more on what we are doing or what we are thinking and how we are feeling. It is not business as usual and we are learning to accept that. But I think with Zoom and Zoom meetings the same rule applies. We have to ask ourselves how this is better and how is this not as good, and we have to be very conscious of that.

Because there is something, like you said before: us getting together like this, at 7 in the evening and 10 in the morning, it’s magic! Virtual makes anything possible. But it has these limitations and I think that we just have to be very mindful of those limitations and how we feel about them. My last point is that we check in with each other about it and know that this is Zoom and we would rather hug each other…but I’m Norwegian and German so I may not need the hug as much!

This means when you both will be coming to Milan, we will greet each other with our elbows to avoid contact!

P.S.: Well, we could blame it on the pandemic and not on culture!

Edgar H. Schein is Professor Emeritus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Sloan School of Management.
Edgar and Peter Schein

Linking to that, what do we keep with us after the pandemic and what should we let go?

E.S.: I think that will depend very much on the way in which the Italian culture believes in relationships and trusting each other and how it will translate face to face, respect and trust into distance, because some employees and some companies will continue to want to stay separate rather than getting together.  That will depend on how the Italian culture works.

In my work, I did many seminars in Italy and I learnt, through my Italian colleagues who did the translations for me and so on, that for the Italian culture power is more important than love. And this is not always true in every place, but if in Italy it is true and power is more important than love, then you’ll have to understand how to exert power when not being face to face.

I have something to say, but I’m very curious to know what Peter has to say about this.

P.S.: Well, to me Zoom creates a complication which is also a virtue. The complication is that some of those hierarchy signals and status signals are almost removed in this dimension because we are just faces on a screen, we no longer can communicate our status or our power in the same way we did in a physical meeting.

On the other hand, the virtue is that with Zoom we can be more revealing of who we are in a positive way. For instance, I am the only one using a virtual background now, but I would reveal more of myself if I turned it off.  There is so much more in the way we communicate about each other that creates openness. And so I think this is the positive side: in a way, we must be able to do that shift from power to love and Zoom in some respects makes it easier. Because we are all on the same level, we are just windows on a screen.

With the O.D.I.® Method we teach love because it is the only way to gain “power”. This is our bridge between love and power. What do you both think?

E.S.: Well, the most obvious comment is that it is a complete parallel to what Peter and I have been arguing around levels of relationship that, as the work in organisations becomes more complex, pure power relationships do not work anymore, because the boss doesn’t know enough. So, you have to communicate and build a relationship, you have to use love in order to create communication so that the boss knows what the employees know and, in this way, they can work better and take better decision. With that, we are in complete agreement.  

And I would also add this: power prevents communication, love allows and elicits communication, and communication in necessary for the organization to work.

P.S.: I would also add another view to describe this. With power, you get answers to the question you ask. With love you get answers to questions you don’t even ask, because people feel the trust and openness to tell you things that you don’t know to ask.  

With power you can always get answers because you ask people to give you answers. But those people may have information that is far more relevant, but that they would only feel empowered to share through love, and not power. If you have a mutual trust relationship, you will offer information and not just give them when you are asked to.

Also, in the US Business Culture we are not comfortable with the term “love” when it comes to businesses. So Ed and I have referred to switch that to openness and trust. Not when we talk about sports and team sports, there people love each other, but they are not comfortable “loving” each other in business. So I was wondering if when you talk about it you also have a particular sense to what the word “amore” means in business, that it doesn’t have in personal life.

I feel we have the opposite problem. Here, the word love is used like salt on every dish, in every conversation. And for somebody like me, who made up a business on word and communication, the word love has a specific weight, which is very important and so it must be used wisely. I see the point of yours using the words trust and openness, but I agree that in organizations people can love each other. Maybe, even more than compared to sports, because we put more effort at work than in sports: that’s why friendships that last forever are born in the workplace.

E.S.: There is another way to think about it. In a traditional organization, the boss and the employees maintain professional distance with each other, they don’t want to know each other personally: this is what our books call Level 1. Level 2, is to know your employees personally. With the emphasis on knowing, because it doesn’t require love: you just need knowledge. I don’t keep you at distance, I get to know who you are and what kind of a person you are.  

When I read your book “Humble Inquiry” I was very happy to have finally found somebody that sees organizations and business the way I do. And then we became three: you, Peter and I.  Then I founded the Strategic Communication Academy and now there’s really a lot of people who finally sees things the way we do, and I am so glad that what just made sense to me before, now makes sense to a lot of people.

P.S.: We just have to accept that these things we believe in and the values behind them are deeply emotional, and that when we are not aligned, it just doesn’t feel right.

Luca Brambilla