Saturday, May 7, 2011

An Evening with Edgar Schein

My evening with Edgar Schein left me in awe. I met the father of corporate culture. How surreal.

Where would we be as organizations without the powerful insights Schein has brought to the conversation over the years? Where would I be as an individual without the concept of company culture, the core area of my work? It’s simply an honor to have heard him speak at this week’s Organization Development Network Chicago meeting.

Schein is attributed with coining the term "corporate culture" and widely known in the field for his model denoting three levels of organizational culture.

The three layers -- artifacts, espoused values and underlying assumptions -- play critical roles in how leaders can manage and sustain cultures of high performance.

  • Artifacts essentially constitute the processes and systems in place, illustrating the need to consider desired workplace culture in the design of new initiatives, policies and procedures. Ultimately every new initiative or artifact will shape your culture -- so if they are not intentionally designed to support your desired culture, they quite possibly will undermine it.
  • Espoused values include the traits that typically come to mind when you think of culture -- for example values of honesty, innovation and integrity. Moreover, the strategies leadership communicates, and the goals and objectives it defines also feed into the values layer of culture. It is vital for leaders to strategically communicate goals and strategies in a manner that aligns with the desired values and culture of the company. Contradiction in these core messages can lead to a culture of confusion and dysfunction.  
  • Underlying assumptions is perhaps the most sneaky layer of the three. It can cause trouble in times of change if not given proper attention. Assumptions are our patterns of thought that give rise to behaviors and preferences. These are often unarticulated -- and since we don't realize we hold these assumptions, conflict can rise up when we encounter those who don't share these perspectives.

This model is multi-faceted and profound. I've shared only a few brief insights that stem from it, but there is so much more meaning to consider and explore. Thank you Dr. Schein for all the wisdom you've contributed to the field of organizational behavior and to my own learning and pursuits!

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