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Schein On You Crazy Diamond

Edgar Schein is a well known MIT expert on the topic of organizational culture. In “A Corporate Climate of Mutual Help“, Mr. Schein describes his method for taking on the huge challenge of changing institutional culture. Wisely, he harbors a:

deep respect for the power and legitimacy of ingrained assumptions and attitudes that people develop together gradually.

While talking about the approach that CGHs, BUTTs, and SCOLs typically pursue when trying to improve their CLORG‘s culture, he sez:

they think that to change culture, you simply introduce a new culture and tell people to follow it. All you’ve done is stated the obvious, like “We’re for motherhood.”

Mr. Schein goes further in peeling the onion:

It’s the very nature of authority to say, “Don’t be a squeaky wheel. You made your point, but we’re going to go ahead anyway. I don’t want to hear any more.”

In lieu of the easy “dictate-and-skidaddle-away” strategy, Mr. Schein’s painstakingly thoughtful and time consuming approach to cultural change (which makes it unacceptable to most institutional SCOLs) is:

…one of observation, inquiry, and leverage.This means observing the ways in which an organization’s employees act; deducing (or inquiring about) the ways they think; and putting in place small behavioral changes that lead them, bit by bit, to think about things differently.

Notice that to execute Mr. Schein’s strategy requires sustained commitment, hard work, and empathy. You know, those traits that SCOLs demand from their subordinates but not themselves.

So, why is designing and implementing a healthy culture becoming more and more important in this era of social networking and instantaneous connectivity? It’s because:

…work in many companies is getting more complex, and subordinates have more relative power by virtue of their specialized expertise. If they choose to not tell the boss about problems, the company will never know that there’s an issue until it’s too late.  The people with the most authority and established knowledge must make the others feel psychologically safe; everyone will speak up freely when something is wrong.

Of course, if institutional leaders auto-assume that their culture matches the esprit de corps they espouse it to be, then they don’t have a clue that it needs maintaining or (heaven forbid) improving. They then deserve what they get – a deterioration in the quality of work life for all (which includes themselves), which leads to increased apathy at the workface, which leads to decreased commitments to efficiency and innovation, which leads to a degradation in the borg’s products and services, which leads to an incremental (and undetectable) decline in long term financial viability….. until it’s too late and a hairball crisis appears seemingly out of nowhere.

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