Organizational Culture

Organizational culture is “…the sum total of what a group has learned and now takes for granted as the way to deal with the external environment and its internal integration.”[1]. Edgar Schein 


The sociological phenomenon of ‘culture’ is at once among the broadest of concepts and one of the most influential forces in human experience. Culture includes structures, unwritten rules, taboos, policies and procedures, dress codes, ideologies, communications, and much, much more. Culture determines how to be successful (for a group). It defines what is meant by concepts such as progress and teamwork. It teaches people how to navigate the social constructs of the group, and a whole host of other philosophical assumptions. Every organization has a culture and whether they formed that culture intentionally or unintentionally, culture is acting as an unseen force, much like an iceberg where only the tip is seen, and the vast majority of iceberg lies below the water. Culture has the power to propel the organization towards success or failure.

Management guru Peter Drucker famously asserted, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” In other words, the most carefully crafted and brilliantly executed strategy will always fall victim to a culture that is misaligned with that strategy. The work of the Organization Development (OD) specialist is to bring tools and insights to those inside the organization to help them intentionally choose their preferred culture and to maintain alignment of that culture to the values, mission, and vision of the group. The magic of OD thus occurs at the margin of the outsider and insider perspectives. The outside OD specialist understands the typical organization development cycle, change management theory, and has seen scores of organizations and their dysfunctions. The insider intuits his or her own culture in a way that no outsider will ever fully grasp. Together, these two viewpoints can elucidate the key places in need of tuning to align the culture for maximum performance.

Edgar Schein, professor emeritus at MIT, is considered to be the pioneer in the field of organizational culture. In his gorundbreaking work, he identified three primary levels of culture. These levels, similar to those in which Freud envisioned the integration of the conscious and unconscious mind—and not unlike the acknowledgments of other theorists (Adler, Marshak, others)—recognized the reality of the unseen, namely, the power of culture. Schein defines organizational culture as “the sum total of what a group has learned and now takes for granted as the way to deal with the external environment and its internal integration.” 

Just as Freud imagined the id, ego, and superego as the building blocks of personality, attributing to each one a specific set of functions, Schein suggests that Artifacts, Espoused Values, and Basic Assumptions are the building blocks of an organization’s personality, or culture. 

Schein did not necessarily suggest that any particular components are better or worse than others, but simply identified the various component parts of an organization’s culture. He understood organizational life in terms of its relationship to its environment (external) and how it integrated or responded to those environmental influences (internal). The underlying assumptions guide those responses. 


  • Mission/strategy/goals
  • Means: structure/processes
  • Measurement: error detection and correction systems 


  • Common language and concepts
  • Group boundaries and identity
  • Nature of authority and relationships
  • Allocation of rewards and status 

In order to realign an organization’s foundational culture, a leader must uncover the implicit basic assumptions of the society that forms the organization. Once exposed, these basic assumptions then must be realigned with the desired cultural expression to affect a renewed healthy human system that is productive and achieves its vision for mission. 

Drawing from the insights of anthropology and sociology and their contributions to our understanding of human culture, we can build upon Schein’s foundation to build a list of primary culture embedding mechanisms that can be used to realign the dysfunctional culture back to its desired shape. Here, we are looking for the precise spots to place our levers to jimmy the organization back into alignment. The following primary culture embedding mechanisms are the most promising candidates for realigning cultures: 

  1. Values – Mission – Vision – these three elements form the foundation of organizational culture.
  2. Narrative – every culture has stories that define its identity.
  3. Language – language shapes our thinking, which in turn shapes our reality.
  4. Leadership – every culture has its leaders who become a primary force for embedding culture.
  5. Power – the way in which power is defined and manifested.
  6. Social Control Systems – the larger the organization grows, the more social controls it has in place.
  7. Team Learning – how organizations acquire new information about themselves and their environments.
  8. Mental Models – the shared mental conceptions we carry in our minds.
  9. Measurement Systems – you get what you measure. 

[1] Schein, E.H. (2004, October 2). Lecture Series in Change Management, Benedictine University, Lisle, IL




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