Edgar Schein’s Model of Organizational Culture

Edgar Schein proposed a model of organizational culture where the basic assumptions shape values and the values shape practices and behavior, which is the visible part of culture. Organizations do not adopt a culture in a single day and in fact learn from past experiences and start practicing it everyday thus forming the culture of the workplace.

Schein believed that there are three levels in an organization culture.

Schein’s Levels in an Organization Culture

Artifacts

These mark the surface of the culture in every organization. The visible part of the culture can be noticed by a visitor or an ‘outsider’ in the form of the following aspects:

  • Physical Artifacts can be found through the architecture and interior arrangements, physical space and its allocation and office design, decoration, manner of dressing and even mementos and trophies awarded on chosen occasions.
  • Language gives away culture through modes of speaking, levels and types of sound, slogans and special expressions.
  • Stories and myths circulating among the staff indicate what type of persons or acts are considered heroic, how certain types of situations should be handled, what should not be done, what happens in this organization if one acts in a particular way and so on. Especially interesting are  the stories that narrate what happens in ‘our’ organization if a high status person breeches a rule, what happens if the organization has to chose between profits and people, what happens if you make a mistake around here/there. These stories can be about another-day-at-work-here, or about key events as well as about the past glory of the organization.
  • Technology is also a part of the culture, since it reflects and shapes the values and assumptions through operations, materials and knowledge.
  • Visible traditions displayed at ceremonies and rituals, social practices, leadership practices and work traditions that show ‘our way of doing things’.

Artifacts are visible, but that does not mean that they can be understood easily and by everyone alike. In fact, artifacts can be confusing for an observer who is tempted to use readily available labels and stereotypes upon noticing them. Thus, the shapers of culture as well as student should avoid going too much into detail of an artifact, as well as overgeneralizing and labeling.

Values

When compared to basic assumptions, values are at higher levels of consciousness and they reflect the members shared opinion on ‘how things should be’. When we say ‘opinion’, it means that when it comes to acting, these members may or may not act as per their values. The values help the organizational members classify situations and actions as either undesirable or desirable.

The values seldom lead directly to basic assumptions even after the values have been articulated, listed and arranged according to their priority. The observer may only find that the values do not form a pattern, or that they are contradictory, or incongruent with observed behavior.

Basic Assumptions

An assumption is a kind of belief that is taken for granted as a fact and so it is never challenged. A pattern of basic assumptions evolve among the members of a social group and makes the core of the culture in any organization. When the basic assumptions are understood, the apparently isolated and confusing artifacts and values become coherent. Schein (1985) gave six types of assumptions that form the paradigm for every organization:

1. Assumptions about what is the ‘truth’ in physical and social matters, how reality and truth are determined, and whether truth is to be revealed or discovered.

2. Assumptions about the importance of time in a group, how time is to be defined and measured.

3. Assumptions about how space is to be owned and allocated, the symbolic meaning of space around persons, the role that space plays in shaping relationships between individuals and boundaries between intimacy and privacy.

4. Basic assumptions about the intrinsic or ultimate aspects of human nature, whether the human nature is fundamentally good or bad and whether it can be perfected.

5. Assumptions about the organization’s relationship with its environment, about the understanding of work and play, and how much of activity and passivity should be appropriate.

6. Assumptions about the right way for people to relate with each other, the appropriate ways to distribute power and responsibilities, the relative merits of cooperation vs. competition, individualism or group collaboration, the basics of leadership – whether it should be traditional authority, law or charisma. Appropriate ways of resolving conflicts and making decisions.

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