A Tribute to the Greats – Charlie and Edie Seashore

March 11, 2013 12:10 pm

Every field has its ‘greats.’ Those people who were there when it started and spent their lifetime and energy learning, advancing, and shaping what it is today.  For our field, organizational development, also called social psychology, behavioral psychology, organizational effectiveness, or simply, ‘change,’ Charlie Seashore, Ph.D. and Edith Seashore. were at the top.  Unfortunately, we lost both of them at the beginning of this year, Charlie to health issues, and Edie, we think, to a broken heart.

Jill Royston, my co-worker, and I spent this past Saturday in a ballroom in Columbia, MD with over 400 people celebrating their life’s work.  We were surrounded by their family, their students, colleagues, and most importantly, their friends.  Jill and I had the opportunity to study directly with them during our graduate program, and Jill went on to work with Edie in various endeavors, most recently in Edie and Michael Broom’s Triple Impact Program.

Their Contribution to the Field

Charlie and Edie were there when organizational development, a later coined phrase, all began.  Kurt Lewin, the first “social psychologist,” along with Ron Lippet, Lee Bradford, and Ken Benne, started the National Training Laboratory in Bethel, ME in 1947.  It was there that Charlie and Edie first met, and their lifelong love grew for each other and the work of small group development and change.  To this day, they still believe in the power of small groups to shift organizations through change, development, and diversity of being.

Charlie and Edie were expert facilitators in that they embodied the action of “holding up the mirror” in order for people to see their full selves.  Only through awareness of self can change happen, and Charlie was an expert in the development of “Use of Self.”  Use of Self answered the questions:

  • How do I use myself in any situation I may find myself?
  • What patterns of behavior, traits, or scenarios do I constantly find myself?
  • How can I change them for a better and richer impact?

He also used the phrase, “core of rot,” which is that place we all go to mentally that stands in the way of being our best self.  He worked with many people over his 60 years in the field, sorting out the “core of rot” that people bring into business situations.

Edie was a pioneer, avoiding the ideology of “the woman’s place” during her time.  She went to college, had a graduate degree, and began working in a male dominated psychology field, when she was supposed to “just find a husband and manage a home.”  One of Edie’s first change facilitator roles was working with the telephone company to get women out of the typing pool, and for them to be seen as key contributors to the business.  She would often tell the story of when she was there to facilitate a group of leaders, all white males, on a group retreat.  There were a few female employees invited, but she learned they were there to make coffee, take minutes, and dance with the men during the group dinner in the evenings.  That entire paradigm shifted soon after Edie began working with them.  But, to hear her tell the story, and any of Charlie’s stories too, “the group did it” and they were just there to ask the questions of “why” and “how.”  Their humbleness in their life’s passion is what drew people to them in droves.

Both Charlie and Edie were on the forefront of working for social justice and diversity.  They worked with organizations before diversity was the norm, to open leadership’s eyes to what innovations and gains an organization can achieve through diversity. Edie was still working with a group on social justice issues the day before she passed, “holding up the mirror ” for change at 84 years old.

Charlie and Edie were masters at reframing situations so people could see all sides, not just the current one they were living. There are a lot of key phrases that both of them used and those of us lucky enough to study with them have worked into our vocabulary.  Here are a few of the popular ones:

  • What would an adult do, if they were in that same situation?
  • Who would you be, if you let that go?
  • Yes, you had that barrier, up until now.  What are you going to do differently?
  • Every response is a choice, what would it take for you to choose something different?
  • If you were in charge, what would you do?

An Organization as a Human System

Charlie and Edie taught at many universities over the years:  Johns Hopkins, Pepperdine, Georgetown, and American University to name a few.  What they brought to their students studying organization development, business, and psychology is the concept that a business organization is made up of human systems. Basically, if forces are placed on it – i.e. a change in leadership, new software, a restructure, a new piece of information, etc. – what is the impact?  How do the patterns of behavior change or modify?  How does the system adapt?  Most importantly, Charlie and Edie saw that a small group, a cross-section of employees, had the same patterns of behavior represented in them that existed within the larger organizational system.  And, these types of self-regulating systems can self-correct through feedback.  Therefore, they used that theory as the guiding principle for their work.

To facilitate work and movement within a system, Charlie and Edie helped others study themselves as if they were other people – to see a 360 degree view of the impact an individual has on a group and on the larger system.  They also believed that if a facilitator had any information about a system, its patterns, behaviors, or unconscious habits, the facilitator should share it.  I guess it’s the “the truth will set you free” belief.  All of this is done in the name of making an organization more effective, so that it reaches the desired results and outcomes it’s seeking.

At the Memorial, Charlie and Edie’s daughters shared that even in their father’s illness; he was looking for ways to improve the system.  On one of his last doctor’s visits, the doctor asked him, “How has the effect of the dialysis been working for you?” Charlie then launched into a ten minute monologue of how ineffective the dialysis human system is, and ways to improve it.  He explained that the receptionists don’t speak to the nurses, the nurses don’t talk to the doctors, and how patient and family support is lacking. He explained how much more effective the system would be if a small group of doctors, nurses, and receptionists got together with a few patient families and brainstormed ways for improvement.  He went on from there, and the doctor sat there stunned.  Finally, Edie cut-in and explained to Charlie that the doctor was asking how treatment was going for him – how he was feeling. His response, “It sucks!”

What can we learn from their work?

Although some business minded folks consider their work to be “too touchy-feely,” change has to be to some degree because it involves people.  And people who come to work bring all of the behaviors, patterns, habits, thinking, emotions, and beliefs they hold with them.  Without seeing those things, which manifest and amplify in work situations, people stand in their own way of being successful.  They also stand in the way of organizations achieving their outcomes.  It’s through helping others see their impact, through small groups or coaching sessions, that an organization can shift and develop.

Categorised in:

Comments are closed here.