Organizational culture has become a buzzword. Employees are placing an increased value on the culture they work within, advocating for companies to “practice what they preach” by upholding their stated mission, vision and values. But culture spans further than that, reaching into salary and benefits, interpersonal relationships and the way the company approaches external problems.
Edgar Schein was ahead of his time when he introduced his Model of Organization Culture. His management theory dictates that three levels of culture exist. Effective leaders should understand the nuances of each level, including how they work together in the real world, to make a lasting change in the team. Organized culture takes time to create and evolves constantly as employees learn lessons from external forces and internal challenges.
Schein’s theory emphasizes that organizational culture acts as a major barrier to change and understanding this aspect is crucial for effective leadership. His theory introduces three levels of culture: artifacts, espoused values and basic assumptions. Artifacts are visible but challenging to interpret. Espoused values represent conscious goals and strategies. Basic assumptions usually are unconscious beliefs and values that shape the essence of culture and impact all actions taken within the business. [Read more about The Management Theory of Henry Mintzberg]
At the foundation, assumptions are inherent beliefs while values are felt and often heard as statements put forth by an organization, which are both principles of artifacts. Artifacts are easily perceptible actions and reactions to situations. Employees build upon past experiences every day, crafting a culture based on first assumptions, then values and then artifacts bit by bit. Work culture is never complete as long as employees continue to learn and grow.
Artifacts represent the tactile parts of the culture in a work environment — things you can touch, see and hear. Getting artifacts aligned with your business values goes a long way in creating a consistent culture. For example, a workplace that allows employees to dress down often communicates a more laid-back environment, allowing employees to pull each other into side conversations. Conversely, a workplace that institutes a strict dress code may communicate the professionalism of the environment but fail to allow employees to enjoy their roles or show their personalities.
Values held by employees have a direct impact on a company’s culture, which make competent, thoughtful hiring decisions more essential to preserving and supporting the established workplace culture.
Each new hire to a company can change the company’s environment. In addition, each action and reaction employees take form the impression of the culture on other workers. For example, how a leader responds to a situation in which an employee takes an out-of-the-norm action will communicate more to an employee than a line in a handbook about how to act at work.
Foundational beliefs in an employee’s mind remain the final ingredient to a successful, organized and healthy culture. These beliefs aren’t often mentioned in workplace settings. Instead, they’re evident in the way employees, managers and decision-makers move about the world. Leaders can foster the culture they want to build by reinforcing positive behavior and discouraging negative reactions. [Read more about The Management Theory of Mary Parker Follett.]
The difference between espoused values and basic assumptions is how they’re shown to others. Espoused values can be verbal while basic assumptions are almost always nonverbal and rarely communicated directly to others.
Schein analyzed organizational culture further to encompass group dynamics, drawing parallels between the functioning of groups and businesses within their respective cultures. In his model, informal groups are categorized into three types:
Schein’s management theory of organizational culture focuses first on understanding culture before making changes. Then, leaders have the task of educating themselves on the theory, working collaboratively to make lasting changes and investing in resources for continual analysis and improvement of organizational culture.
>> Learn More: The Management Theory of Frank and Lillian Gilbreth
Many websites offer valuable resources on Schein’s theory, including diagrams, summaries and instructional materials that aid in building both the theoretical understanding and practical application of Schein’s principles within your business. These online sources can equip you with the necessary background knowledge and expertise to implement Schein’s theory for the benefit of your company.
Experienced consultants well versed in Schein’s management theory can assist you in maximizing the application of his principles within your company’s distinct environment.
Consultants have the unique advantage of looking at a team through an outsider’s lens. This allows them to see how individuals work together and autonomously, which is a skill that comes in handy when evaluating the culture in a given group of people.
Culture organically develops through the behaviors, thoughts and actions of people. Using a consultant helps leaders identify blind spots, seek out opportunities to strengthen relationships and unlearn harmful patterns to then build up a stronger foundation. Hiring professional help doesn’t need to go as far as consultants. Leaders can hire professional culture builders well-versed in Schein’s theory to hold a presentation or webinar — and then work with their team to apply the principles in daily work routines.
Tools and resources available online can help you implement Schein’s management theories more easily. Activities, games, exercises and other Schein theory-based products, information and services can help you learn and apply the principles most valuable to your business.
New or ideal work cultures aren’t established overnight or without proper research. Take your time in cultivating a culture in your workplace with the right people, education and attitude for long-standing success.
Cultures develop over time as a result of overcoming challenges together, sharing hardships and building rapport with each other through actions, behaviors and shared tasks. As employees learn how to work together, culture forms and reforms. Take into account the turnover in a team as well. A group that has a higher turnover rate will have a more volatile culture than a team that has worked together for a long time and knows each other well. Have patience with your team and yourself. A culture isn’t built overnight and shouldn’t be forced to conform to one person’s ideal standard.