Learning Anxiety

Changing organizational culture

Last year, when reading about organizational-culture change theory, I came across Edgar Schein’s concept of “learning anxiety.” Schein observed that people within organizations have two competing anxieties: learning anxiety (the fear of doing something new) and survival anxiety (the fear of irrelevance). For organizations to be situated for culture change, Schein theorized, the collective survival anxiety within those organizations must be greater than their learning anxiety.

When I first thought about this theory, it seemed straightforward that the challenge for someone desiring change in in a bureaucratic organizational culture would be to reduce learning anxiety. After all, in many bureaucracies, the alternative approach (increasing survival anxiety) is mostly ineffective. People know that leaders come and go, and often times you can “wait them out.”

So it was that when I originally planned on writing this blog post, I thought it would be an easy one to write. As it turns out, I found myself re-reading an interview of Schein, and I struggled with it.

Why? Because although Schein also concludes that increasing survival anxiety is usually the wrong path, his other belief is 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.” He goes further:

The reality is that the same learning techniques—whether you call it coercive persuasion or brainwashing—can be used just as well for goals that we deplore as they can for goals that we accept. But let’s also not forget that the use of power and coercion in the service of learning has been with us throughout history. We should focus on the validity of what it is we are trying to teach. If we can justify that, and if we can make individuals comfortable with the learning process, coercive persuasion seems not only efficient but also entirely legitimate.

I have read this interview about a dozen times. And yet, I just can’t abide Schein’s pessimism (perhaps cynicism?). And then it hit me. Although Schein is clearly right about learning anxiety and, incidentally, is correct about how to reduce learning anxiety (through promotion of psychological safety), he is wrong about the fundamental equation.

Change can happen when learning anxiety is less than survival anxiety. But change can also happen when someone takes the time to show a better path forward. Rather than coercive persuasion, I find myself drawn to Seth Godin’s teachings about marketing within an organization.

Modern leaders, rather than increasing survival anxiety or reducing learning anxiety, should find a third variable: permission to change. By finding to gain permission to inspire a different path, leaders can change culture directly, and without coercion. It’s perhaps equally hard to do, but it’s a path that respects and empowers those whom you choose to lead.