Schein on Dialogue

23 Aug

I am enjoying Edgar Schein’s “On Dialogue, Culture, and Organizational Learning” (Organizational dynamics 22.2 (1993): 40-51). My summary.

Dialogue in the general parlance means conversation. But dialogue, for Schein, is different. It starts from a change in mental approach–the use of a somewhat unnatural “suspension”–instead of reacting when we hear discomfiting information that triggers us, we pause for a moment, and evaluate what we’re thinking. “Is this feeling I have true? Or is it based on a mistaken perception?” we ask ourselves, and wait a bit for additional information before we decide how to act. Dialogue means bringing a kind of mindfulness, or cognitive self-awareness as we talk–“knowing one’s thought as one is having it,” says Schein.  Thinking about a thought rather than being the thought. Leaving the animal-like, mechanical push-and-pull of a conversation, and watching, as it were, partially from above.  As Schein says:

I have found repeatedly that if I suspend, I find that further conversation clarifies the issue and that my own interpretation of what may have been going on is validated or changed without my having to actively intervene.

“Not having to intervene” feel unfamiliar? Probably because conversations where people are practicing this at first feel different than other conversations. There is no debate. Instead there’s a feeling of a “disjointed . . . random conversation.” The point is not to “convince each other” but to “build common experience.” People think of the process–at first–as a “detour or slowing down of problem solving,” but Schein notes such dialogues are necessary. And he says people come to want them, once they’ve got the feel.

Why?  Why focus on building experience instead of problem solving? Because it heals the miscommunications, misunderstandings, and problems caused by clashing mental models that are a bane of organizational subcultures. For Schein, our continual problem is that we form tacit and private understandings, beliefs, norms, assumptions, languages in our different contexts, teams. or hierarchical levels, and without work at getting these on the table, we won’t understand what people in other teams or at other levels are saying. And they won’t understand us. We also won’t say we don’t understand, because we are socialized “to withhold information that would in any way threaten the current ‘social order;'” so the misunderstanding remains until the cross-functional project we’re working on stalls, and we point fingers.

But if we’re using dialogue, we’re watching ourselves thinking as we simultaneously listen to what people are saying, we’re seeing and assessing our built-in assumptions as they pop up, we’re thinking about what language means, we’re holding multiple possibilities in mind simultaneously. Because we’re suspending our reactivity in favor of listening to the modulations of the group thinking, it’s less about individuals talking to each other (as happens in traditional feedback, for instance) and more about the group as a kind of network or hive mind. A good group-think, where the group thinks and learns at a higher level than the individuals could on their own, rather than the opposite. Through the meandering dialogue process we form a new understanding of how the group uses language, how it conceives of its work, what mental models it uses, and, perhaps most importantly, we create a psychologically safe space where we can efficiently develop new languages and new models. Not to mention we also get better at using dialogue itself, until it becomes an efficient tool we can put to use whenever we feel the need.

In any event, without dialogue, says Schein–and this is the kicker–you can’t do much at all. Dialogue is “at the root of all effective group action,” it allows groups to “achieve levels of creative thought that no one would have initially imagined,” and, finally, without it, you can’t learn, you can’t change, and you can’t adapt:

Learning across cultural boundaries cannot be created or sustained without initial and periodic dialogue. Dialogue in some form is therefore necessary to any organizational learning that involves going beyond the cultural status quo.


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