Organisational Culture: The Edgar Schein Model

Georges Lteif

Georges Lteif

Software Engineer

Last Updated on January 2, 2023.
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12 min read

1. Overview

Walking into a new office, you will scan the environment, collect data, formulate impressions, and build a narrative.

Organisational culture is a collection of abstract concepts that allow us to make sense of our shared experiences, successes, and frustrations as a social group in an organisation.
Organisational culture is a collection of abstract concepts that allow us to make sense of our shared experiences, successes, and frustrations as a social group in an organisation.

You first notice the open space and the short distances between the desks. Next, you see it’s unusually noisy; people’s voices are loud, and their tones are emotionally charged.

Your mind builds a story to make sense of all this data. You see a glimpse of the organisation’s culture.

But what exactly is organisational culture? How does it come about, and how does it impact social groups and their evolution through time?

Culture is both a dynamic phenomenon that surrounds us at all times, being constantly enacted and created by our interactions with others and shaped by leadership behavior, and a set of structures, routines, rules, and norms that guide and constrain behavior.
Organisational Culture and Leadership, 3rd edition – Edgar Schein, 2004

Researchers became interested in organisational theory as early as the 1940s. They borrowed biological, sociological, and anthropological concepts to explain the behaviour of organisations. 

For example, systems thinking, chaos theory, and complexity theory provided insights into social group behaviour.

These concepts attempted to explain the behaviour of organisations as a whole. Still, they did not explain the different patterns observed within the organisation, nor the stability or instability of the organisation or its constituent groups.

One needs concepts that permit one to differentiate between organisations within a society, especially in relation to different levels of effectiveness, and the concept of organisational culture has served this purpose well.
Organisational Culture – Edgar Schein, 1990

The above quote is from a paper published in 1990 by Edgar Schein, one of the leading figures in organisational psychology. It is easy to read, concise, highly informative and recommended for leaders and professionals.

The ideas we present in this article are based jointly on this paper and a book by the same author titled Organisational Culture and Leadership, which focuses on the intertwined and symbiotic relationship between group culture and leadership.

Other influential views on organisational culture (such as those from Geert Hofstede’s book Cultures and Organisations: Software for the Mind) have been widely acclaimed but will not be included in this article. These and a review of his book will be treated in separate pieces.

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2. Why Is Organisational Culture Important

2.1 A Sense-Making Framework to Understand Group Behaviour

We as humans rarely work alone and almost always form complex social groups, exhibiting intricate behavioural patterns that are sometimes difficult to comprehend.

As anybody who has worked for an organisation for enough time would tell you, making sense of other people’s behaviour (and sometimes our own’s) is not trivial.

Our manager’s behaviour and the leadership’s strategic choices often seem incomprehensible, unjustifiable, and even erratic. Our direct reports are challenging to manage, hard to change, and sometimes outright unreasonable.

We cannot immediately see why our organisation performs so inefficiently when solutions are so apparent. We strongly believe that the values and ideals we share are the right ones, while every other group seems to wander ineffectively without clear objectives.

The concept of organisational culture provides a sense-making framework for such situations.

Although organisational culture is abstract and manifests primarily in unconscious behaviour, its impacts are tangible and immediately observable through our collective reasoning, decision-making, and behaviour as a group.

2.2 A Driver of Strategic Performance and Survival

Leadership often discusses the need to transform or attach new values to an existing culture. The intentions are undoubtedly sincere, but their practicality is questionable when combined with superficial characterisations of what organisational culture means.

Organisational culture provides a framework to deal with group problems such as internal integration or external environmental pressures. It is also employed and influenced by leaders to drive performance and ensure the organisation's survivor.
Organisational culture provides a framework to deal with group problems such as internal integration or external environmental pressures. Leaders also employ and influence it to drive performance and ensure the organisation’s survival.

As Schein discovered in his research, the effort of deciphering manifestations of organisational culture and modifying or influencing a culture’s evolution can be severely and quickly underestimated.

Schein’s predecessors’ study of organisational culture was partly motivated by the will to understand why Japanese firms outperformed their American counterparts (Schein, 1990). Explanations based on nationalistic ideas could not explain this fact since not all companies in Japan performed in the same manner; this discrepancy warranted further studies prompting Schein’s work on the subject.

Organisational culture, however, is preponderant and applies in any domain or industry. It is, in fact, more fundamental than that; any social group that has enough shared history will inevitably form a culture.

To take a more recent example. The 15th State of Agile Report states that cultural barriers are one of the top-ranking factors in the slow adoption of Agile among the participants (43%) in that survey.

The same statement also applies to DevOps and any other field where changes to how people make sense of their actions and thoughts and interact with peers and managers must transform to survive.

In summary, deciphering an organisational culture is vital to understanding its drivers, evolution, and performance capabilities.

3. What Is Organisational Culture

3.1 Manifestations of Organisational Culture

Although organisational culture is essentially an abstract framework for explaining group behaviour, the forces it creates are tangible, authentic, and observable.

Organisational culture manifests through the interactions of group members, the shared meanings and assumptions they hold, and their attitudes and behaviour towards their stakeholders.
Organisational culture manifests through the interactions of group members, the shared meanings and assumptions they hold, and their attitudes and behaviour towards their stakeholders.

According to Schein, organisational culture manifests in the following ways:

  • Behavioural patterns among group members include their language, communication methods, and rituals. For example:
    • The language can be formal or informal.
    • The communication method is direct or indirect, face-to-face or mediated, with loud or low voices, and how easy or difficult it is to approach management.
    • Rituals include daily standups, retrospectives, bilateral meetings, team gatherings, water cooler or coffee gossip breaks, and escalation processes to senior management.
  • Formal philosophy guides teams in their interaction with the various stakeholders. For example:
    • The primacy of technology over the business, or vice versa
    • How transparent should we be when communicating with clients or management on timelines and quality?
    • Decision-making procedures, whom to include, and who has the final say

Schein lists a few other dimensions equally crucial in defining what culture means, such as climate, rules of the game, embedded skills, and formal rituals and celebrations. We will not go into their details here, but I trust most of them will be self-explanatory notions that most are already familiar with.

Schein also stresses that organisational culture is not restricted solely to these observables but includes every shared assumption or meaning the group holds.

In Schein’s view, organisational culture provides stability and meaning to the group and allows them to navigate the daily internal and external pressures. More on that in the following paragraphs.

3.2 Groups and Culture Creation

In Schein’s view, organisational cultures do not exist outside the group that holds them.

In effect, a group that has spent enough time together and accumulated shared experiences and a stable core will develop a unique culture.

Although organisations are vastly more complex and display a broader spectrum of phenomena than small groups, Schein argues that all organisations have started, at some point, as small groups and continue to exist as a collection of smaller groups with different and sometimes conflicting subcultures.

Cultural diversity (as in multiple subgroups with different subcultures) can also arise from mergers, acquisitions, geographical expansions, and the assimilation of individuals or groups from different ethnographical and cultural backgrounds.

The strength and stability of culture derives from the fact that it is group based—that the individual will hold on to certain basic assumptions in order to ratify his or her membership in the group. If someone asks us to change our way of thinking or perceiving, and that way is based on what we have learned in a group that we be long to, we will resist the change because we will not want to deviate from our group even if privately we think that the group is wrong.
Organisational Culture and Leadership, 3rd edition – Edgar Schein, 2004

The group’s internal stability directly influences the culture’s strength and consistency and comes from the following factors:

  • The length of a group’s shared history (how long it has worked together) and the stability of its memberships as part of a solid core
  • The intensity of the shared experiences perceived by the group members — Lessons learned from traumatic experiences will have a stronger and more lasting effect.
  • The learning mechanisms involved. Schein lists positive reinforcement and avoidance conditioning.
  • The clarity and consistency of convictions held by leaders and founders and how evident the role of these convictions were in the team’s success or failure. The latter will determine the accepted profile of future leadership.

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3.3 Organisational Culture Definition

The model put forward by Schein defines organisational culture as follows:

Culture can now be defined as (a) a pattern of basic assumptions, (b) invented, discovered, or developed by a given group, (c) as it learns to cope with its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, (d) that has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore (e) is to be taught to new members as the (f) correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems.
Organisational Culture – Edgar Schein, 1990

As the group struggles to maintain its internal cohesion and fend off external threats, a learning process occurs on various levels:

The lessons learned from successfully dealing with those internal and external threats will be repeated and reinforced over time, becoming the foundations of that culture. These lessons are what Schein refers to as assumptions.

Schein states that the cognitive processes that develop within a group will ultimately decide how that group will:

  • Perceive reality (nature of time, space, and human relationships of group inclusion or exclusion), the group’s mission, and its ultimate objectives
  • Espouse and advocate specific values, although not necessarily apply them
  • Develop a particular attitude towards problems, both internal and external
  • Learn how to deal with failures

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3.4 Culture Levels

Schein categorises manifestations of organisational cultures into three levels based on their accessibility and visibility for an external consultant.

In analysing the culture of a particular group or organization it is desirable to distinguish three fundamental levels at which culture manifests itself: (a) observable artefacts, (b) values, and (c) basic underlying assumptions.
Edgar Schein – Organisational Culture, 1990

At the top are the most visible and tangible artifacts we encounter in office setups and hear in people’s voices.

Next comes the publicly-stated and espoused values written down in mission statements.

Finally, we have the subconscious taken-for-granted assumptions that can only be uncovered by interviewing senior members of the group and hearing their narratives.

Schein's three levels of organisational culture.
Schein’s three levels of organisational culture.

The below table summarizes those levels.

DefinitionObservable attributes or objectsEspoused values, group norms, ideologies, and philosophiesAxioms, hidden laws, rules of thumb, and heuristics
How they are createdGenerated by processes and members’ interactionsLeaders promulgate values after social validation. If the values do not produce results, they are discarded and replaced.Traumatic learning experiences from the founding moments.
How to access themObjects, attire, feelings, processes, tools, and ambience that one experiences inside the officeUsually documented in mission statements, charters, etc.Revealed by interviewing senior motivated members of the group
AttributesTangible, observable, measurableDeclared, espoused, conflicting, divorced from realityUnconscious, hidden, taken-for-granted
DecipheringBy observing the processes that produce those artifacts and looking out for anomaliesBy interviewing key people and looking at the important events that shaped the organization’s historyBy looking at inconsistencies in the espoused values and past traumatic experiences
The three organisational cultural levels described by Schein are categorized according to their accessibility.

Notes about the three levels:

  • The artifacts by themselves are insufficient to understand a specific culture. They can only be understood by looking deeply into the processes that generate them, which inevitably takes us to the values and beliefs on the one hand and the underlying assumptions on another.
  • The espoused values and beliefs can be incongruent and conflicting and can be affirmed by contrasting what people say with what they do. Such conflicts result from discrepancies between values and underlying assumptions or dualities (such as simultaneously caring about profit and quality or stakeholders and employees).
  •  Shared assumptions are extraordinarily influential and notoriously difficult to change. We tend to work well with people who share our mental models, while anxiety can overwhelm us when dealing with people of different cultures. Shared assumptions provide sense and meaning in a chaotic world, and we prefer to ignore or deny facts contradicting our beliefs rather than revise them.

4. What Organisational Cultures Provide

In 1947, Kurt Lewin proposed a theory that attempts to explain the purpose of human systems.

Edgar Schein subsequently refined some of those ideas in his studies and finally came up with the following conclusions to explain the existential purpose of cultures in human systems.

Functions that organisational cultures provide to their group.
Functions that organisational cultures provide to their group.

4.1 Anxiety Reduction

The ultimate goal of a human system (such as an organisation or a group) is to maintain a certain level of equilibrium and autonomy vis-à-vis the environment.

The strength and tenacity of culture derive, in part, from this anxiety reduction function.
Edgar Schein – Organisational Culture, 1990

The equilibrium-seeking hypothesis is deeply rooted in cybernetics and systems thinking, a Newtonian mechanistic way of modelling social groups. 

According to this view, a system is embedded in an environment to which it constantly tries to adapt. Leaders are rational decision-makers who, through their actions on the system, seek to close the gap between the system and its environment, thereby preserving the state of equilibrium.

Our environment as individuals or social groups is complex, dynamic, chaotic, and unpredictable. It affects us by inducing anxiety whenever we cannot predict, control, or make sense of the events around us.

The anxiety reduction mechanisms we developed throughout the ages do not solely rely on organisational culture but other social and cultural constructs like political, religious, commercial, and social institutions.

The strength of organisational culture is proportional to its ability to 

  • Provide a coherent narrative of historical events
  • Impose a certain amount of order on an otherwise complex environment
  • Provide a measurable level of predictability of an individual’s behaviours who is also a group member.

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4.2 Formation of a Group Identity

The second conclusion that Kurt Lewin and Edgar Schein arrived at was that culture (and cognitive structures such as beliefs, myths, and general attitudes to specific problems) provide an understanding of the world and a common platform for cooperation.

The evolution of culture is therefore one of the ways in which a group or organization preserves its integrity and autonomy, differentiates itself from the environment and other groups, and provides itself an identity.
Edgar Schein – Organisational Culture, 1990

Individuals who share our beliefs are one of us, while those who don’t threaten our integrity. We can quickly and happily cooperate with people from the first group but experience immediate anxiety and become uncomfortable when working with the second.

People who share common beliefs act similarly, and their actions are predictable by other individuals of the same group. This predictability induces trust and allows bonds and relationships to form.

Introducing some order into a messy reality makes it easier to perform long-term planning while making sense of events that affect us can provide meaning.

Identity is also central to a group’s culture, and Schein states that just like people are reluctant to relinquish their beliefs despite evidence that contradicts them, so do groups.

What are cognitive structures?

From A cognitive structure is a psychological construct that accounts for a form of human knowledge. Schema and mental models are examples of cognitive structures.

The cognitive structure provides meaning and organization to experiences and guides the processing of new information and retrieving stored information.

5. Dynamics of Organisational Culture

5.1 Organisational Culture Lifecycle

Organisations are dynamic systems that evolve and change over time. Their lifecycle starts with a founding moment, followed by creation, maturity, decline, and fall. 

Because culture is heavily tied to a specific group, it follows the same cycle.

Organisational Culture Lifecycle
Organisational Culture Lifecycle

The average lifetime of organisations is about 40 years, although some organisations live much longer (the Catholic Church is 1500 years old).

5.1 Formation of Organisational Culture

Schein believes cultures are created in groups that share a long history. But how is culture formed, and when?

We must look at critical incidents in the group’s history and the leader’s actions during the founding moments to answer these questions.

Critical incidents in a group’s history are emotionally charged events where the group has faced and overcome internal or external threats (more about that in the next section).

Traumatic events and how the group has responded to those events will have a long-lasting impact on the group’s behaviour. The response then becomes the norm.

Leaders and dominant figures can contribute to culture creation through their small daily actions.

Group members pay close attention to a leader’s actions and responses, especially when anxiety is high. Then, they absorb those observations into a guiding framework.

Through experimentation, group members figure out what works and doesn’t, contributing to culture creation and its continuous transformation.

However, only the shared knowledge and solutions that stood the test of time become part of a group’s culture.

5.2 Internal and External Pressures

External and internal pressures influence culture formation and are critical to understanding how organisational culture develops and evolves.

Systems thinking and cybernetics were prevalent when Schein conducted his research and formed the basis of most business management strategies.

In cybernetics, we work with the assumption that the system’s ultimate objective is to attain a stable state of equilibrium with the environment. The latter’s ever-changing nature constantly presents the group with challenges it needs to overcome to survive.

Leaders act to close the gap between the external reference provided by the environment and the system’s current state.

Naturally, multiple solutions to external and internal challenges present themselves, and the group would need to form a consensus on which solutions to adopt.

External pressures shaping the organisational culture
External pressures shaping the organisational culture

Schein defines external pressure through the below challenges where the group must arrive at a consensus on how to approach them:

  • Purpose, mission, and goals of the organisation — Is the organisation altruistic, profit-seeking, or non-profit? Does it have any local, regional, or global ambitions?
  • Means and methods to attain these goals — For example, is the organisation open to focusing on sustainable energy sources despite any challenges it might face due to that decision? Is it predominantly offshore or onshore?
  • Success criteria and Key Performance Indicators for measuring success — Employee satisfaction, maximum employment, growth, or shareholder profits?
  • The repair mechanisms for dealing with failures should the goals be missed — For example, hiring external consultants over replacing key leadership players.

Internal Pressures Shape the Culture of a Group
Internal Pressures Shape the Culture of a Group

The internal pressures also consist of finding consensus, albeit on different topics:

  • Basic concepts of time — Cultures organize themselves differently regarding cadence and orientation of time. Organizations can live in the past, present, or future, affecting their time management processes and long-term planning capabilities.
  • Basic concepts of space — Think of rank and status and how that translates into larger offices and private areas.
  • Group boundaries and criteria for inclusion determine whether someone is “one of us” or an outsider.
  • Rewards and punishments — This directly relates to the perceived value of one’s work.
  • Allocation of status, power, and authority controls promotions, appearance and support of dominant figures within a group and management of office politics.
  • Criteria for love, friendship and intimacy are heavily shaped by the culture’s view of the nature of human beings (humans are good vs evil, rational vs emotional, etc.), the nature of truth and intimacy.
  • Managing the unmanageable — such as ideology, gender, and religion.

5.3 Maturity of a Culture

After an initial stage of turmoil, where the group is experimenting with different solutions to internal and external pressures, it will reach a state of equilibrium.

The group then maintains the state of equilibrium through active resistance to change. Unfortunately, this resistance happens even if circumstances change to disconfirm their original beliefs.

Culture perpetuates and reproduces itself through the socialization of new members entering the group.
Edgar Schein – Organisational Culture, 1990

That is not to say that cultures are fixed and never change; small incremental changes occur when they lose or add members as long as they do not threaten the group’s integrity and identity.

As groups welcome new incomers, senior staff pass on the organisation’s culture (shared assumptions, embedded skills, perspective on the nature of time, space, and human relationships) via training, mentoring, and narrative sharing.

We expect to see three outcomes of this socialisation process.

  • In the first scenario, new members are entirely assimilated into the new culture.
  • In the second scenario, they are well integrated into the group regarding group interactions but retain an individualist approach to their work. They might also bring in elements of their assumptions and values.
  • In the third and final scenario, new members wholly reject the assumptions of the group’s culture. In this case, they either move on if circumstances allow, or they will attempt to “subvert, sabotage, and ultimately foment revolution” (Schein, 1990).

5.4 Cultural Transformation

Deeply held assumptions often start out historically as values but […] gradually come to be taken for granted and then take on the character of assumptions. They are no longer questioned […] Such avoidance behaviour occurs particularly if the learning was based on traumatic experiences […] If one understands culture in this way, it becomes obvious why it is so difficult to change culture.
Edgar Schein – Organisational Culture, 1990

You know it’s time to change when the methods you have employed so successfully in the past become less effective in the face of new challenges.

However, as per Schein, that is not reason enough to abandon a long-standing, cherished legacy and embark on a transformation journey. For that to happen, the organisation’s survival must be at stake.

At this critical juncture, one of two things can occur.

  • Scenario 1: Guided cultural transformation — Here, the leadership sees an opportunity to solve the issue without losing the group’s identity or integrity.
  • Scenario 2: Forced radical change — In the other scenario, a radical cultural transformation might be required, and more drastic measures might be taken, such as replacing key members with new ones.

In either situation, the organisation may successfully relinquish some of its culture (perhaps also its identity) and learn new solutions or accepts continuous decline and demise.

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6. Understanding Your Organization’s Culture

Understanding your organisation’s culture is vital to leveraging its capabilities and remedying its weaknesses. More importantly, it’s the only way to make sense of what’s happening around you.

Organisations must constantly overcome growth-related issuesexternal threats, and internal conflicts like those described in the previous sections.

In the following paragraphs, we examine the role of organisational culture in the evolution of those events using the ideas presented earlier.

6.1 Growing the Business

Growing the business invariably involves assimilating new members into your group or serving new customer segments or niches.

Growth is usually accompanied by anxiety as it also implies change in management style, where leaders must relinquish power in return for growth, and generalisation for specialisation.
Growth is usually accompanied by anxiety as it also implies change in management style, where leaders must relinquish power in return for growth, and generalisation for specialisation.

With every new group member or client, there is the risk of disagreement on issues of a fundamental nature, but there is also an opportunity for efficient collaboration and growth.

Growth is a time of opportunities intertwined with anxieties.

Your ability to decipher the root causes at the heart of those differences requires excellent leadership skills, an appreciation of human nature, and a perfect understanding of the culture’s dynamics.

6.2 Facing New Challenges

The fast-changing pace of some industries, such as high-tech, can be frustrating as you have to constantly keep up with emerging technologies and compete with new entrants.

In this case, it is vital to identify critical periods of the organisation’s lifecycle where change is unavoidable and respond appropriately. What has worked in different contexts needs to be revisited.

For this reason, senior management needs to be prepared mentally and psychologically for cultural transformation.

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6.3 Dealing with Conflict

Conflict arises when members reject elements of the dominant culture. It can also occur when the interests of two parties (individual vs group or individual vs individual) clash.

Dealing with internal conflict is a constant in a leader's professional life.
Dealing with internal conflict is a constant in a leader’s professional life.

Using quick-and-easy solutions can treat the symptoms but will not prevent the issue from reoccurring. The leadership must identify the root cause and attend to it for that to happen.

It is vital to understand that how you deal with conflict becomes part of the culture.

7. Final Words

Experiences shape our views of reality, and the mental models that ensue are deployed to interpret future experiences and (more crucially) reconstruct the past.

These models can become obsolete with new experiences. Recognising the obsolescence of our paradigms requires, in addition to courage, the mental tools or frameworks that help us forge new ones.

Creating these frameworks is usually driven by a passion for learning and scientific curiosity, precisely what researchers like Schein do.

Complicated and sometimes conflicting views in psychology, philosophy and cognitive analysis have produced different theories to explain organisational behavioural patterns, and Schein’s is one of many.

Depending on your views of the nature of knowing and thinking (realismidealismrelativism) and human systems (systemic or process-oriented), the theories you espouse will vary from one end of the spectrum to the other.

This short article tried to investigate one of those theories, which offers a straightforward and intuitive explanation of organisational behavioural patterns.

We hope it has helped the reader better understand social behaviour in organisations and opened the door for further investigations.

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8. Further Reading

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