Social Scientists need to speak up

PCI Initiative
May 4, 2020 · 3 min read

by: Ed Schein, MIT Emeritus Professor

The next pandemic will be global warming and the collapse of pieces of the global environment. We already see early symptoms with the heat waves, the floods, the uncontrollable wildfires, hurricanes and other weather changes. At the same time, the virus pandemic has revealed how much our environment is capable of cleaning itself if we give it a fighting chance. Can we take advantage of what we observe globally as the positive impact of our staying home for a couple of months?

The current virus pandemic will force some shift from rampant competition among countries, states, hospital units, and systems based on economic well-being rather than global health, to inventing processes of collaboration that protect the common resources pertaining to world health.

Will we recognize that we need to use or invent methods of collaboration on a global level to deal with the global environment as a finite resource that we are currently depleting by encouraging or at least sanctioning rampant competition among countries, industries, and political parties?

Social scientists have found many examples of how collaboration is necessary to avoid the tragedy of the commons, the unwitting depletion of limited resources. Can we now put forth what we know and what we believe in to escalate collaboration as a central value in ameliorating the inevitable next global pandemic around global warming?

Can we show that with complex, messy, systemic, interconnected problems, collaboration is not only necessary but actually produces new and better innovative adaptations? In our teaching and workshops we constantly advocate teamwork, the power of group processes, and the need for distributed humble leadership. Is it time to escalate what we believe in to the political and national level?

Can we imagine at the next year’s Davos conference we get the heads of Royal Dutch Shell, British petroleum, Exxon and their counterparts from Russia, China, India, etc. into a room together and invite them to sit in a circle, begin a real dialogue, share their stories and undergo some of the group exercises we have developed to illustrate the power of collaboration and the negative impacts of competition?

We don’t have that kind of access, and maybe even our best skills in group facilitation would not dent such a group very much to think out-of-the-box and invent collectively other ways of dealing with their shareholders, employees, and communities to remain economically viable.

But as social scientists we have been educated to think out-of-the-box so let’s not abdicate our responsibilities and fail to use some of the skills that we do have, and take advantage, at least to speak up. The coronavirus has provided us an incredible opportunity.

If we don’t speak up now, it might be too late when the global warming virus becomes the next global pandemic.

Edgar Schein is the Society of Sloan Fellows Professor of Management Emeritus and a Professor Emeritus at the MIT Sloan School of Management.

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