Changing culture — Part one: What is organizational culture?

Posted on Posted in Words on Culture

What is organizational culture - Edgar ScheinIf you work in an organization, odds are you’ve heard some highfalutin talk about culture change, usually accompanied by vague adjectives, like “dynamic,” “engaged” or — god forbid — “synergistic.”

Ever since organizations started understanding that they have something called a “culture” — and that that culture affects their performance — they’ve been trying to change it. I can’t count the number of leaders I’ve spoken to who want to change their culture. “We need to be more collaborative,” says one. “We need to focus on our customers,” says another. A third says, “We need a high-performing culture.”

But how the heck do you change culture? And what is it anyway?

When I ask leaders what they think culture is, I often get the same few answers:

  • “It’s our shared beliefs.”
  • “It’s how work gets done around here.”
  • “It’s the way we treat one another.”

While none of these answers is incorrect, they’re all incomplete, representing just a portion of what organizational culture is. And because they’re incomplete, they don’t provide a solid basis on which to go about changing the culture.

The study of organizational culture arises out of the field of cultural anthropology, but management consultants and business school researchers have really dug into it and turned it into something that lay folks and worker bees can understand and manage. One of my personal favorites — a recognized expert on corporate culture — is Edgar Schein. He presents a three-part model to describe organizational culture.


The top level of culture — and the easiest one to observe — is what Schein calls artifacts. This is the stuff of an organization that you can see, hear, smell, touch and taste — how folks dress, how they talk, explicit processes and policies, the design of the workplace, etc. This stuff matters a lot, but it’s just the beginning.

Espoused Values

The next level of Schein’s model is called espoused values, and it represents the stated goals, philosophies, assumptions and strategies of the organization. Those values posters on the wall are artifacts, but the words on them — integrity, respect, accountability, aversion to felonies — are espoused values, as are the company’s mission, vision and goals. These are the foundations of the organization. Sounds pretty important, right? Well, it is, but the next level has even more power.

Shared Tacit Assumptions

At the deepest level of organizational culture are what Schein calls shared tacit assumptions, and this is where things get tricky. Because they are tacit (i.e., unspoken and implicit), you can’t point to them and identify them, though you might seem evidence of them in the two upper levels. In fact, this level of feelings, thoughts, perceptions and beliefs is what truly drives the upper levels and, thereby, the actual behaviors and values of the people in the organization. It’s at this level that the keys to organizational culture change reside.

I like to think of Schein’s model as a beautiful mountain, like the ones I see when I look out my window here in Colorado. The majestic peak that stretches toward the sky represents the artifacts — the explicit elements of the organizational culture that I can detect with my five senses. The grassy, floral, wooded based of the mountain contains the espoused values that “ground” the culture. And then there’s all the life below the surface — worms, snakes, burrowing animals, tree roots — that represent the shared tacit assumptions. I can’t see them, but I know they’re there, and I know that without them, the mountain crumbles.

Now that we have a way of understanding what organizational culture is and what it comprises, we have a much stronger foundation on which to build an understanding of how to change it. We’ll start tackling that in the next post.


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