Our September 21, 2012 post introduced a few key elements of Prof. Edgar Schein’s “mental model” of organizational culture. Our focus in that post was to decry how Schein’s basic construct of culture had been adopted by the nuclear industry but then twisted to fit company and regulatory desires for simple-minded mechanisms for assessing culture and cultural interventions.
In this post, we want to expand on Schein’s model of what culture is, how it can be assessed, and how its evolution can be influenced by management initiatives. Where appropriate, we will provide our perspective based on our beliefs and experience. All the quotes below come from Schein’s The Corporate Culture Survival Guide.*
What is Culture?
Schein’s familiar model shows three levels of culture: artifacts, espoused values and underlying assumptions. In his view, the real culture is the bottom level: “Culture is the shared tacit assumptions of a group that have been learned through coping with external tasks and dealing with internal relationships.” (p. 217) The strength of an organization’s culture is a function of the intensity of shared experiences and the relative success the organization has achieved. “Culture . . . influences how you think and feel as well as how you act.” (p. 75) Culture is thus a product of social learning.
Our view does not conflict with Schein’s. In our systems approach, culture is a variable that provides context for, but does not solely determine, organizational and individual decisions.
How can Culture be Assessed?
“You cannot use a survey to assess culture.” (p. 219) The specific weaknesses of surveys are discussed elsewhere (pp. 78-80) but his bottom line is good enough for us. We agree completely.
Individual interviews can be used when interviewees would be inhibited in a group setting but Schein tries to avoid them in favor of group interviews because the latter are more likely to correctly identify the true underlying assumptions.
In contrast, the NEI and IAEA safety culture evaluation protocols use interviews extensively, and we’ve commented on them here and here.
Schein’s recommended method for deciphering a company’s culture is a facilitated group exercise that attempts to identify the deeper (real) assumptions that drive the creation of artifacts by looking at conflicts between the artifacts and the espoused values. (pp. 82-87)
How can Culture be Influenced?
In Schein’s view, culture cannot be directly controlled but managers can influence and evolve a culture. In fact, “Managing cultural evolution is one of the primary tasks of leadership.” (p. 219)
His basic model for cultural change is creating the motivation to change, followed by learning and then internalizing new concepts, meanings and standards. (p. 106). This can be a challenging effort; resistance to change is widespread, especially if the organization has been successful in the past. Implementing change involves motivating people to change by increasing their survival anxiety or guilt; then promoting new ways of thinking, which can lead to learning anxiety (fear of loss or failure). Learning anxiety can be ameliorated by increasing the learner’s psychological safety by using multiple steps, including training, role models and consistent systems and structures. Our promotion of simulation is based on our belief that simulation can provide a platform for learners to practice new behaviors in a controlled and forgiving setting.
If time is of the essence or major transformational change is necessary, then the situation requires the removal and replacement of the key cultural carriers. Replacement of management team members has often occurred at nuclear plants to address perceived performance/culture issues.
Schein says employees can be coerced into behaving differently but they will only internalize the new ways of doing business if the new behavior leads to better outcomes. That may be true but we tend toward a more pragmatic approach and agree with Commissioner Apostolakis when he said: “. . . we really care about what people do and maybe not why they do it . . . .”
Prof. Schein has provided a powerful model for visualizing organizational culture and we applaud his work. Our own modeling efforts incorporate many of his factors, although not always in the same words. In addition, we consider other factors that influence organizational behavior and feed back into culture, e.g., the priorities and resources provided by a corporate parent.
* E.H. Schein, The Corporate Culture Survival Guide, new and revised ed. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009).