What Do Coaches Need to Know About Edgar Schein? | College of Executive Coaching
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What Do Coaches Need to Know About Edgar Schein?

February 2, 2023
By Jeffrey E. Auerbach, Ph.D., MCC

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The world lost a great contributor this week. Edgar Schein, Ph.D., passed away after making a 70-year contribution to understanding how people interact, understanding organizational culture and how to be helpful as a coach and consultant. Dr Schein received his Ph.D. from Harvard in Social Psychology and was a former professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management. He is known for making seminal contributions in the field of organizational development, career development, group process consultation, and organizational culture. Moreover, most senior level executive coaches consider him as one of their foremost influences. Although he is widely known for introducing consultants to his important idea that organizational culture exists and that it and group dynamics are paramount, executive coaches in particular considered him to be a guru in our field.

"The only thing of real importance that leaders do is to create and manage culture. If you do not manage culture, it manages you, and you may not even be aware of the extent to which this is happening." —Edgar Schein, Ph.D.

What Do Coaches Need to Know About Edgar Schein?

I've surveyed executive coaches about which of his many books most influenced their development as a coach, and there are two which stand out that you should read or re-examine at this time of appreciating his contributions.

First, the number one influential book for many coaches and leadership consultants is: Process Consultation Revisited: Building the Helping Relationship.

Edgar Schein's model of process consultation is the insight that problems will be solved more effectively and stay solved longer if the organization, group, or client learns to solve the problems itself.

Process consultation is based on the idea that a true helping relationship is needed. He argues that a consultant should work with and not for the client. The client and consultant should act as equals. This approach is contrasted with that of the "expert" role in that the consultant/coach is not expected to have answers to every problem, nor prescriptions to fix identified problems. Schein assumed that problem-identification is an important part of the process, but that the client initially may not know what the actual problem is.

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Dr. Schein said, "process consultation (PC) is the creation of a relationship with the client that permits the client to perceive, understand and act on the process events that occur in the client's internal and external environment in order to improve the situation as defined by the client" (Schein, 1999, p.20). The PC approach is known as a developmental approach, seeking to empower the clients to solve their own problems, and places a limit on the outsider consultant's knowledge. (Schein, 1987).

Process consultation hinges on three main principles. First, the client knows more about their own situation than the coach will. Second, the process requires the client to take ownership of their activities. Third, the coach, with the client's permission, is trying to help the client develop their capabilities to solve their own challenges. Schein believed that human processes, including face-to-face relationships, communication, group and inter-group processes, and broader organizational issues such as values, culture, and norms are incredibly important and that the ultimate goal of his style of consultation is to create an effective helping relationship.

Dr. Schein developed these Ten Principles of Process Consultation, which many coaches find useful:

  1. Always try to be helpful.
  2. Always stay in touch with the current reality.
  3. Access your ignorance.
  4. Everything you do is an intervention.
  5. It is the client who owns the problem and the solution.
  6. Go with the flow.
  7. Timing is crucial.
  8. Be constructively opportunistic with confrontative interventions.
  9. Everything is a source of data; errors are inevitable-learn from them.
  10. When in doubt, share the problem.

Schein taught us that to effectively help, one must have a deep understanding of the client's own view of reality, including personal preconceptions, biases, and conclusions. He espoused that the best helping relationships help the client find strategies to own the problem, diagnose it, and conclude how best to implement a solution.

The second book that most of my colleagues highlight is: Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling.

In this brief, easy to read gem of a book, Schein emphasizes that often when people interact, including manager to employee, people often simply tell others what they think they need to know. He argues that this shuts people down and that instead we need to practice humble inquiry to generate new ideas, avoid mistakes, and cultivate more flexibility to aid in success.

Ed Schein defines humble inquiry as "the fine art of drawing someone out, of asking questions to which you do not know the answer, of building a relationship based on curiosity and interest in the other person." Schein contrasts humble inquiry with other kinds of questioning, explains the benefits humble inquiry brings, and offers advice on overcoming the cultural, organizational, and psychological barriers that prevent us from doing it.

Edgar Schein described "humble inquiry" as the gentle art of asking instead of telling; of "drawing someone out; of asking questions to which you do not know the answer; of building a relationship based on curiosity and interest in the other person."

Listen with Humility

Schein teaches us that to discover new possibilities and nurture mutual understanding with others, when we ask questions, we must also listen to the answers without judgement. He says that by asking questions we don't know the answer to and deeply listening, we are creating an opportunity for connecting, deeper mutual communication, building trust, and learning. He argues that gentle, humble inquiry is a kindness that creates space to think in a spirit of togetherness and that it can build trust, safety, belonging and inclusion in human relationships. This form of asking conveys interest, signals a willingness to listen, and thereby empowers the other person. It implies a kind of here-and-now humility. (Schein, 2013)

Practice your Humble Inquiry

To practice your use of humble inquiry, try this: Make some time for a conversation with a colleague about an issue that's current in their workplace for half an hour. In the conversation be curious and focus your attention on how your colleague responds—on both their words and how they say them.

Here are some example questions to use:

  • What's happening?
  • How are you feeling?
  • What type of patterns are you noticing?
  • What have you been learning?
  • What would you like to do now?
  • What do you need?
  • How can I help?

In this exercise, your listening quality is as important as the questions you ask. By considering the responses you hear, you can then use your curiosity to get a deeper understanding of the issue and a deeper connection with your colleague.

Impact on Me

Many senior level executive coaches I know have personal stories they share about how genuine, warm, generous, and inspiring "Ed" was. He had a knack for making connections and a passionate commitment to help coaches and consultants be truly helpful. What stood out to me in my interactions with him was how this giant of a scholar, professor, author of 14 books, would be so warm and curious in one-on-one interactions. A key insight he communicated to his many mentees was to ask questions that one does not know the answer to, rather than asking leading questions. His curiosity and ability to connect with others was key to his style—he was about building relationships. I remember being caught off guard during one of my consultation/mentee meetings with him when he asked me, "What book do you think I should write next?" This struck me as affirming not only because there he was asking a much junior person what I thought about something important to him, but also how it demonstrated that he would choose questions to ask only when he really did not know the answer.

In His Own Words

Here is how Dr. Schein described the origination of his method as quoted in Schein, E., Turner, B., Schein, P., and Hayes, T. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research Association 2021, Vol. 73, No. 4, 289–301):

One time I was invited by Digital Equipment Corporation to sit in on their top management group, and they did everything wrong. They interrupted each other, never got through anything on the agenda, and it was easy for me to say, "Don't interrupt each other because that just everything up." However, when I advised them about the interruption they always said, "Very good, you're right. Thank you." And then they continued to interrupt. I got lots of thank-yous, they paid me, but there was zero change. I could see that they didn't even seem to mind being interrupted. In contrast, a lesson was learned when I asked a dumb question like "how the agenda got to be what it was." They discovered that the leader's secretary was taking items in the order in which they were telephoned in by various members of the committee. The final agenda looked like it had some order, but it was completely random. That problem they fixed themselves; I didn't need to advise them. I realized that's how to be a consultant: Sit back, shut up, and listen. The truth was they interrupted because they just couldn't stop themselves. They were the best and the brightest young engineers. When someone had half an idea or when someone saw something wrong, they just had to tell that person right then and there. But in the process the person who had the idea never got that idea out. Then one day an artistic muse motivated me to get up and walk to the flip chart and whenever an idea was proposed to immediately start to write it down. As usual, the person with the idea was, of course, interrupted. But at that moment I had a chance at the board to use my authority to turn to the person who had been interrupted and say, "I'd like to get the rest of that idea." I used my authority for the process, not for the idea. And I had a way of interrupting interruptions by saying, "I'd like to get the rest of that idea." That gave him the floor back, and magically the group stopped and listened. Somehow, I had given him permission to talk, and it reminded the group that maybe we should let him finish. And then he finished, and then the next person talked, and before long we had a board full of good ideas that they could process. And they could immediately see how this helped them make decisions. I still remember being told at the end of that meeting, "Ed that was really helpful" with the emphasis on really. I had tried to be helpful before by pointing out dysfunctional behavior, but I was not really helpful until I showed them how to get whole ideas and retain them. I didn't realize it at that time but that was really the moment where process consultation was invented. I don't tell them what to do; I intervene in a way that will enable them to do what they want to do.

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