Understanding Edgar Schein’s Perspective on Organizational Culture


If all of organization development is essentially focused on changing organizational behavior, than isn’t change essentially focused on influencing “culture” or the values and beliefs that drive organizational behavior? “Culture” is a word that is used freely in the organization development and change management world. It is often cited as a barrier to implementing a new initiative, or in turning around an organization that is struggling. But culture is also a good thing, argues Ed Schein, as it is a mechanism that seeks to stabilize and make the organization more predictable.

I recently finished reading Ed Schein’s book, The Corporate Culture Survival Guide, which has made me stop and rethink what I thought I knew about organizational culture. Maybe this summary of his model will help others reframe their thinking too.

Schein poses a three level model of culture:

Level 3. Artifacts. This is the outermost layer and captures “visible organizational structures and processes” or manifestations of deeper cultural elements. Artifacts are things that we see, feel, and hear when we observe how things work in different organizations. Schein warns us that artifacts don’t tell us about different cultures, they simply represent differences in group operating norms or differences in how culture is represented in the organization. In other words, although we can sense how an organization works by paying attention to artifacts, we can’t assume we know the underlying reasons for these behavioral manifestations just from observation alone. We have to go deeper.

Level 2. Espoused Values. These are the philosophies, stated goals, strategies and objectives that organizations create, document, and share with their associates, stakeholders, and the outside world. They are also what people will tell you about “how we do things around here.” Sometimes these espoused values, and the visible behavior, seem in conflict with one another. Schein argues that when this inconsistency occurs, a deeper level of thought and perception is actually influencing overt observable behavior.

Level 1. Shared Tacit Assumptions. This is the deepest level of culture. Often times this level of culture can be understood by looking at the early history of the organization, or what the founders felt, knew, and believed to be true. As organizations grow and experience success, such beliefs can be reinforced, shared, and become part of the fabric of how to continue succeeding. Sometimes these are the “sacred cows” that seem to drive and explain so much of the policies, systems, beliefs, and behavior in organizations.

Schein sums up his model with this statement: “The essence of culture is then the jointly learned values and beliefs that work so well that they become taken for granted and non-negotiable.”

If culture is such a multi-layered and multi-faceted construct, is it possible to wrap our arms around it? Is it possible to measure it? Is it possible to shape, change, or control it? I will be exploring these issues over the next few months as I listen to experts in this area share their perspectives and experiences helping organizations confront and shape cultural issues.


Source by Deb Peluso