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Coutu, D. L. 2002. The anxiety of learning. Harvard Business Review (March): 100-107.

Summary by James R. Martin, Ph.D., CMA
Professor Emeritus, University of South Florida

Behavioral Issues Main Page | Change & Risk Management Main Page

This article is based on Diane Coutu's interview with Edgar H. Schein, a world-renowned psychologist who began his career by studying how American POWs had been brainwashed by their Chinese captors during the Korean war. In the interview Schein draws a close parallel between learning in organizations1 and brainwashing. The main purpose of the interview however is to discover why few learning organizations actually exist and how companies can promote the necessary transformational change.

Schein argues that very few organizations become "learning organizations" because this requires a transformation of the organization into something entirely different. But there is a way to promote transformational change based on what most people would refer to as "brain washing." Schein prefers the term "coercive persuasion." Coercive persuasion is when people are pressured into adopting new beliefs in situations where they cannot physically escape. Although brain washing, or coercive persuasion is routinely used on children by their parents, and has been used effectively on prisoners of war, it can also be used effectively to promote organizational learning.2

To promote learning requires the proper use, or mix of two types of anxiety. According to Schein, anxiety inhibits learning, but a paradox exists in that anxiety is also necessary for learning to take place. There are two types of anxiety associated with learning, "learning anxiety" and "survival anxiety."

Learning anxiety is the basis for resistance to change. It comes from the reluctance to try something new for fear of failure.

Survival anxiety, on the other hand is the realization that to survive we must change.

The basic principle is that learning only occurs when survival anxiety is greater than learning anxiety.

To promote learning, a company can either increase survival anxiety (the usual corporate approach), or decrease learning anxiety. But increasing survival anxiety tends to create a strong resistance to learning. Schein argues that leaders should choose the alternative approach and educate workers about the economic realities of needed change, provide good training, coaching, group support, feedback, and positive incentives to gain credibility, and in the process decrease learning anxiety. But leaders must become learners themselves by acknowledging their own weaknesses and uncertainties. All this will help create a psychologically safe learning environment and a potential for transformational learning where people give up long-held assumptions and adopt radically new assumptions and beliefs. These radically new assumptions and beliefs must be validated so that people are comfortable with the learning process and what is being taught. Although major transformational change is difficult, it can be achieved over a long period of time with the effective use of coercive persuasion.


1 Senge defines "learning organization" as "an organization that is continually expanding its capacity to create its future." Learning organizations must combine survival learning, or adaptive learning with generative learning. Generative learning enhances the organization’s capacity to create. Senge, P. M. 1990. The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. New York, NY: Doubleday. (Notes and Outline).

2 See Chapter 9 of Dawkins, R. 2008. The God Delusion. A Mariner Book, Houghton Mifflin Company. (Summary).

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