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Peter Schein on the digital revolution and human relations

  • Juli 2019

Strategy consultant and author Peter Schein, co-author of “Humble Leadership” which he wrote together with his father Ed Schein, on psychological safety, matrix leadership, and how human-digital interaction could work in the future

Egon Zehnder: Digital is changing our world – and our relationships too?

Peter Schein: We could obviously make much more use of digital solutions. But we haven’t yet learned to reflect on them in a cultural context – and for us, digital all too often means technical.

For example, is there any reason why we couldn’t decide that at an important meeting, everybody would be recorded along with their facial expressions? If we ever wanted to go back and say, “Gee, I wonder what she thought about that,” we could very easily do so. There’s nothing stopping us from a camera perspective, a microphone perspective, or a storage perspective. There’s even sentiment-sensing software out there – it’s not even new. But we don’t really use it in ways that are social. We use it in ways that are technical.

Egon Zehnder: Why should we make use of it in social ways?

Peter Schein: So much of what gets focused on with meeting technology is efficiency: We forget about effectiveness, the effectiveness of capturing reactions. You can’t be at a meeting and look at everybody – our eyes and brains aren’t made that way. What if we want to know if there were reactions that weren’t voiced at the meeting? With any given meeting, we tend to remember two or three things that were important and then move on to the next matter. If we want to broaden our understanding of what happened, we have to double our commitment twenty-four hours a day. If we had AI that was better at automatic pattern-matching, we could perhaps solve some vexing problems. The key, nonetheless, is committing to reflecting on what really happened, socially, at the meeting to get a sense of where people’s “heads were at” at any moment, particularly the moments when there is conflict or tension.

Egon Zehnder: Will machines ultimately take our place?

Peter Schein: One of the sticky notes on my father’s wall reads: “The danger isn’t that machines might become human. The danger is that humans become machines.” It’s the infinite variability of human interaction that enables great inventions to happen. We need more of people and their personalities, we need them to interact in a humble way – and we need what we define as humble leadership. These times are not made for “I alone” heroes, but for those who can heroically interact with their peers, with their colleagues, with everyone. This is all the more true in this era of big data and ubiquitous connectivity, in which almost everything in the way we relate to each other is being turned upside-down.

Egon Zehnder: What benefits will this digital era bring about?

Peter Schein: Certainly a lot, but ultimately not only technical opportunities. And culture really matters when launching digital solutions. Just look at the new products in the safety environment that are being launched globally. It still matters how to handle them, how to make them work. You might have one solution, let’s say a new airplane, but you need to train those who fly it according to their cultural needs – and that requires a deep understanding of how someone thinks, reacts, and interacts in the context of his or her culture.

Egon Zehnder: Creating professional and deep relations means creating safe places too, right?

Peter Schein: Yes, we talk quite a bit about the concept of psychological safety, and its absence: At many companies, people are penalized for telling the truth if it’s not the right answer. But models like the Toyota Production System had psychological safety built into them from the very beginning. We tended to focus on the automation ideas, not the social interaction benefits. The Toyota Production System illustrated how one could stop the line upon seeing anything wrong; line staff were empowered, and socially “safe” to take a stand or stop the line. It was built into the “socio” part of the socio-technical system. But so often, at many companies, it’s “don’t bring me bad news”. If this is not explicitly communicated, there’s an elephant in the room. So many people follow the rule that if you don’t have anything good to say, don’t say anything. That risks leaving vital information unshared, and then safety lapses occur and people die.

Egon Zehnder: What can we learn from Silicon Valley?

Peter Schein: I think Silicon Valley has done a pretty good job of trying to allow for a richer matrix of leaders, with a technical hierarchy that implicitly mirrors the business hierarchy. At Sun Microsystems, it didn’t really matter whether the CEO had a technical or a business background. That was Jonathan Schwarz or Scott McNealy when I was at Sun. Yet there were also Sun Fellows and distinguished engineers who were every bit as powerful, as leaders of people and ideas.

Everybody at the company understood that the senior technical fellows and distinguished engineers were also very powerful, or more powerful, in terms of their ability to motivate action and to create things that were new and better.

And in a way, I think the idea of job rotation is setting out to achieve something like this. In more traditional businesses, people are still motivated by climbing the formal corporate ladder, and the money that goes along with this status. But often in shadow or mirror hierarchies, the technical guys may be far more interested in the ideas to begin with, as opposed to the rank or the status. Technical genius and the respect it brings may actually confer higher status in tech centers like Silicon Valley. I think this has helped business leaders and business hierarchies be adaptable and flexible in organization design, innovation, and compensation policies.

Peter Schein is a strategy consultant in Silicon Valley and a former corporate development and product strategy executive at Sun Microsystems. “Humble Leadership” is the second writing collaboration with his father Ed Schein.

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