“The Anxiety of Learning”

by Diane L. Coutu

Harvard Business Review

Vol. 80, #3

March, 2002



Interview with Edgar H. Schein, Sloan Fellow Professor of Management Emeritus at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, social psychologist, expert on Organizational Developments.  Dr. Schein’s work began with POW’s in the Korean War.  Note the connection to Influence: the Psychology of Persuasion.


Quotes  are from Dr. Schein:


“I believe that all learning is fundamentally coercive because you either have no choice, as is the case for children, or it is painful to replace something that is already there with some new learning. … As for intellectual curiosity, I believe it is just the product of earlier anxieties.”


This doesn’t seem right to me.  Learning for me isn’t always painful, although I suppose one could argue that it is the result of some deep-seated anxiety.  So what?  I enjoy it.  And, according to the Gallup research, so do many others.  But not everybody, and even those who generally enjoy it may not in situations where they are feeling threatened into learning.  And, since an effort to get the people making up a large organization, like a school system, to change creates anxiety (or requires anxiety according to Schein), those involved in such an effort should face the “forced” aspect of that change as it is going to be experienced by many in the organization.  Read on.


“The phrase 'learning organization' has become a handy label to talk about almost any company.  The fact is, we don’t know a lot about organizational learning.  Sure, we know how to improve the learning of an individual or a small team, but we don’t know how to systematically intervene in the culture to create transformational learning across the organization.”  


“Indeed, one of the greatest business challenges is to find some models for how a whole organization can learn.”


Dr. Schein notes that, in Korea, “resisters” and “collaborators” (5-10% at each end) BOTH differed from the majority in the same way !  Individuals in each category felt the need to TAKE ACTION in any situation.  In Gallup terms, might they each have “Activator” as a leading theme?


Dr. Schein identifies “learning anxiety” as stemming from the fear of failure, of looking stupid, of having to change.  He says learning only takes place when “survival anxiety” is greater than “learning anxiety.”  


“Either you can increase the survival anxiety by threatening people with loss of jobs or valued rewards, or you can decrease learning anxiety by creating a safer environment for unlearning and new learning.  The problem is that the creation of psychological safety is usually very difficult, especially when you’re pushing for greater workforce productivity at the same time.  Psychological safety is also dramatically missing when a company is downsizing or undergoing a major structural change….”


Compare: Perkins, Smart Schools, on the need for safe opportunities for students to practice new learning.


"Most companies prefer to increase survival anxiety because that’s the easier way to go.  And that, I think, is where organizations have it absolutely wrong. … [C]ompanies are building in strong resistance to learning.  If leaders really want workers to learn new things, they have to educate them about economic realities in a way that makes their messages credible.  When management gains that credibility, it can create the kind of anxiety that leads to a safe learning environment.  There will always be learning anxiety, but if the employee accepts the need to learn, then the process can be greatly facilitated by good training, coaching, group support, feedback, positive incentives, and so on.”


Compare: Surfing the Edge of Chaos, particularly the efforts at Sears to explain the competitive environment to employees.


"The evidence is mounting that real change does not begin until the organization experiences some real threat of pain that in some way dashes its expectations or hopes.  This threat can come from a number of places internally, including from the CEO, or it can come from competitors.  Whatever its source, this threat of pain creates high levels of learning anxiety and survival anxiety, ultimately prompting the organization to launch a serious change program.  Not surprisingly, it is often the CEO and other executives who feel most threatened by any new learning because it reveals their behavior to be dysfunctional.  However, I would like to emphasize that unless leaders become learners themselves – unless they can acknowledge their own vulnerabilities and uncertainties, then transformational learning will never take place.  When leaders become genuine learners, they set a good example and help to create a psychologically safe environment for others.”


Compare: again, Surfing the Edge of Chaos on how CEO’s of organizations that accomplished fundamental change went in without a “plan”, but rather with a commitment to get through the valley and to a new, better mountain.


“The term ‘corporate culture’ is frequently misused and misunderstood.  We talk about a corporate culture as if it were a thing that can be shaped and molded at will.  But, culture is much more complicated than that.  At a minimum, it factors in the underlying assumptions about the organization’s goals and what the company has learned from its successes and failures over the years."


Despite his comments about how little we know about organizational learning, Dr. Schein says that sometimes a new charismatic leader can come in with a message that changes the culture very quickly.  But, he seems to more strongly back the other alternative he sees, that major cultural change is difficult, painful and either requires a major change in personnel, or takes so long that the population has probably changed anyway. Compare the concept of “paradigm shift.”  This would suggest that, in general, an organization cannot both continue with the same general members and change in any significant way.  While this seems to require forced personnel changes, note that in any large school system, there is a fair amount of turnover every year, and, moreover, a real commitment to change and growth, while welcomed by some, will be so uncomfortable for others that they will choose to leave rather than be part of that process.  So, if the system develops a hiring process that selects for folks with the strengths, attitudes, and values necessary for the new culture, new hires can contribute significantly to the culture change if they are brought into the group on the new basis.


Copyright 1998, 199, 2000, 2001  by David N. Shearon