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Schein – Three levels of Culture – Explained

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Schein – Three levels of Culture – Explained

Edgar Schein, a prominent organizational sociologist and culture expert, proposed a framework known as the “Three Levels of Culture” to help explain the complex and often invisible forces that shape a group’s or organization’s behavior and beliefs. This framework provides a useful tool for understanding the layers of culture that exist within any social group, from small teams to entire societies. By unpacking these three levels, we can gain insight into how culture operates and influences our thoughts and actions.

 Artifacts and Behaviors

The first level of culture, according to Schein, is composed of the visible elements, known as artifacts. These are the tangible manifestations of a culture that can be easily observed by an outsider. Artifacts include the group’s physical environment, such as architecture, décor, and clothing styles, as well as verbal and non-verbal behaviors, rituals, and ceremonies. They are the surface-level indicators of a culture’s existence.

For example, consider the layout of an office space. The physical arrangement of furniture, the use of private offices versus open-plan spaces, and the presence or absence of personal decorations all provide clues about the underlying culture. Similarly, the way people greet each other, the tone and language used in meetings, or the rituals surrounding important events like birthdays or promotions are all observable behaviors that reflect the culture.

Artifacts and behaviors are important because they provide the initial impression of a culture and can give clues about its deeper values and beliefs. They are the most accessible aspect of culture, yet they are often the most ambiguous, as they can have multiple interpretations. For instance, a formal dress code may indicate a culture that values professionalism and tradition, but it could also suggest a focus on status and hierarchy.

Espoused Values and Beliefs

The second level of culture consists of the values and beliefs that a group or organization consciously holds and articulates. These are the principles that members of the group claim to follow and that are often communicated through mission statements, codes of conduct, and strategic plans. They represent the ideals that the group strives to achieve and the standards to which they hold themselves accountable.

Espoused values and beliefs are more abstract than artifacts but are still relatively easy to identify. They are typically communicated through verbal or written statements and are reinforced through training, socialization, and storytelling within the group. For example, a company might espouse values of innovation, customer focus, and teamwork, which are then reflected in its hiring practices, performance evaluations, and reward systems.

While these stated values provide important insights into the culture, there may be a gap between what is espoused and what is actually practiced. This gap occurs when the underlying assumptions and beliefs, which comprise the third level of culture, contradict or impede the adoption of the stated values. Understanding this level helps explain why certain behaviors persist despite the stated values.

Uncovering the Deepest Layer: Schein’s Underlying Assumptions

In the realm of understanding organizational culture, Edgar Schein’s framework of the “Three Levels of Culture” provides a profound insight into the underlying assumptions that shape the behaviors and beliefs of a group. These assumptions, often taken for granted or operating at an unconscious level, form the foundation upon which the group’s values, norms, and actions are built. Let’s delve into the intricacies of this deepest layer of culture.

Unconscious and Tacit Beliefs

At the heart of Schein’s third level of culture are the underlying assumptions—those unspoken and tacit beliefs that guide how group members perceive and interact with their world. These assumptions are so deeply ingrained that they become second nature, operating below the threshold of conscious thought. They encompass the fundamental lenses through which individuals interpret their experiences, shape their thoughts, and influence their emotions.

For instance, consider a company that has consistently achieved success through a traditional, hierarchical structure. Over time, an underlying assumption may emerge that equates hierarchy with stability and effective decision-making. This assumption, though unspoken, influences how employees perceive alternative organizational structures, potentially hindering openness to flat management styles or collaborative decision-making processes.

Shaped by History and Shared Experiences

Underlying assumptions are not formed in a vacuum; they are deeply rooted in the group’s history and the cumulative effect of shared experiences. Each significant event, challenge overcome, or milestone achieved contributes to the formation of these assumptions. They reflect the collective memory of the group, shaping how members interpret current situations based on past experiences.

For example, a team that has consistently faced resistance to change in the past may develop an underlying assumption that change is inherently risky and should be avoided. This assumption, though influenced by the group’s unique history, can impact how members approach future opportunities for transformation, potentially limiting their willingness to embrace new ideas or strategies.

Influencing Behavior and Decision-Making

The power of underlying assumptions lies in their ability to drive behavior and decision-making at a subconscious level. They provide a framework for interpreting and responding to situations, often without individuals realizing the influence these assumptions hold. This can lead to a sense of alignment and consistency within the group, as members intuitively understand the unspoken rules and expectations.

However, the very nature of these assumptions—being unconscious and taken for granted—can also create barriers to change and innovation. If the underlying assumptions conflict with the group’s stated values or goals, it can result in a disconnect between what the group aspires to and what actually occurs in practice. This is why understanding these assumptions is crucial for effective cultural management and transformation.

Uncovering the Unconscious

Given that underlying assumptions are often unconscious, identifying and articulating them can be challenging. They are deeply embedded in the fabric of the group’s interactions and may require careful observation and reflection to uncover. Techniques such as interviews, focus groups, and cultural assessment tools can help surface these assumptions by encouraging individuals to reflect on their behaviors, beliefs, and the underlying reasons for them.

By bringing these assumptions to the surface, organizations can begin to address any misalignments between stated values and actual practices. They can also leverage this understanding to facilitate cultural change, ensuring that interventions and strategies take into account the fundamental lenses through which group members perceive and interpret their world.

In conclusion, Schein’s concept of underlying assumptions offers a powerful lens for understanding the deepest layer of culture. By recognizing and addressing these assumptions, organizations can more effectively align their practices with their desired values, foster innovation, and create a culture that is responsive to the changing needs and goals of the group. It is through this process of uncovering and examining the unconscious that true cultural transformation can occur.

Conclusion

Schein’s Three Levels of Culture offer a valuable framework for unpacking the complex layers of culture within any group or organization. By examining the artifacts and behaviors, espoused values and beliefs, and underlying assumptions, we can better understand the forces that shape our thoughts, actions, and interactions. This framework provides a tool for leaders and change agents to diagnose cultural challenges, facilitate alignment, and drive meaningful transformation within their organizations.

Edgar Schein, a prominent organizational sociologist and culture expert, proposed a framework known as the “Three Levels of Culture” to help explain the complex and often invisible forces that shape a group’s or organization’s behavior and beliefs. This framework provides a useful tool for understanding the layers of culture that exist within any social group, from small teams to entire societies. By unpacking these three levels, we can gain insight into how culture operates and influences our thoughts and actions.

 

SUMMARY:

Schein – Three levels of Culture

Artifacts

Observable level of culture like organization environment, processes, behavior of persons in organizations.

Espoused values

Values lies below the observable level. All members have been exposed to the value and recognize their importance

Underlying Assumptions

The taken-for-granted truths that members share as a result of their joint experience

 

Schein - Three levels of Culture
Schein – Three levels of Culture