Organizational Culture…What’s Beneath the Surface?

Cultural Competency, Organizational Development

Photo credit: Felix Mittermeier on Unsplash

It is surprising to me how often organizations cannot speak to their company culture. If you had 60 seconds to articulate your company culture could you? How about five minutes? More times than not, even when people enjoy their workplace culture, I visibly watch them pause to think about it. They sometimes respond with a list of activities like dress-down Fridays or open-door policies. They might additionally offer that their organizations are fast-paced, passionate, or driven by curiosity.

Here’s the thing: these responses are not wrong at all. They each represent ways that culture can manifest within organizations, yet they do not paint a complete picture.

Organizational culture is often described as the shared beliefs, values, goals, or simply “how we do things around here”.

Edgar Schein of the MIT Sloan School of Management took it a step further and introduced a model in the 1980s that breaks organizational culture into three areas.

  • Artifacts. These are the visual and tangible elements present within an organization. Examples: Casual Fridays, ice cream socials, or open office floor plans
  • Espoused values. These are the organizational values and norms/expectations around behavior. Examples: Fast-paced, accountability-oriented, or results-driven
  • Basic assumptions. These underlying shared beliefs may be less visible elements of organizational culture. They are often taken for granted but ultimately define a company’s culture. Examples: What ideas are valued, authority structures, or what behaviors are rewarded

This framework provides an interesting starting place that allows a closer examination of how culture truly shows up in our organization. It also provides some potential next steps for how we might foster a stronger and healthier organizational culture.

I have seen this framework demonstrated in a variety of ways over my career. I have worked at some amazing organizations that have strong connections to artifacts (Hello, free breakfast and office recess!). Many organizations have articulated core values that are widely known and even posted around the office, like Teamwork, Accountability, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, to name a few. There are also the basic assumptions related to a bigger WHY, like how emails should be responded to within 48 hours – the unspoken belief and demonstration that we are responsive and care about the needs of our clients. Collectively these artifacts, values, and basic assumptions speak to the idea of “how we do things around here.”

Getting to what’s beneath the surface

Now here is where we have an opportunity to peel back the layers. Artifacts and values tend to reflect more surface-level demonstrations of culture, yet they are often the areas organizations spend the most time and energy to get “right.” My experience has been that far fewer organizations take the time to analyze their basic assumptions and question what exactly is driving culture beneath the surface.

A closer inspection may reveal that there are underlying assumptions that contribute to healthier elements of organizational culture and those that can contribute to unhealthy manifestations as well. The toxic manifestations can both be intentional (e.g. policies around shortening the length of paternity leave for men or adoptions), and unintentional, as was the case when I was once told, “As a leader, you should not be asking certain questions in front of junior staff. You should already know the answer!” The unspoken assumptions here are values around perfectionism. Assumptions like: you should already have the right answer (and/or that you are asking for yourself as opposed to creating opportunities for broader understanding), paternalism (the “I know best” mindset coming from people with perceived authority), whose curiosity will be tolerated and when, and the dismissal of cultural values like coming to consensus around problems through the collective in favor of individualism.

Shaping culture metrics and beyond 

For organizations that are focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion, efforts must include and extend beyond a focus on metrics. The ability to increase and maintain the diversity of your organization requires the creation of a culture in which individuals feel valued and included.

I am also all too aware that the cultures of organizations can be a pride point, and as such, I often get push-back when approaching the topic of culture change. To that end, if we are interested in creating a thriving workplace, we must take a moment to ask ourselves, to whom does this pride extend? Is this the vision of the founder or leadership team? Do the very things about the culture you pride yourself on resonate with the current team and those you hope to recruit in the future?

If you have not taken the time to consider these questions, what stopped you? How do the values you personally hold relate to your answer?

If you are ready to do a more thorough examination of your organization’s culture, consider the following reflection points as a starting place:

  • How would you describe the culture of your organization?
  • What priority do you place on artifacts, espoused values, and basic assumptions in your work culture?
  • Who holds the responsibility of shaping culture in your organization? Does your idea of who is responsible align with the artifacts, espoused values, and basic assumptions present? What meaning do team members make of these elements of culture?
  • In what ways are you examining the underlying assumptions of your organization? What are you willing to discuss, and what topics have traditionally been off-limits?
  • Whose perspectives are requested, believed, and given more weight? How does this relate to your diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts?
  • What forums might you use to gain additional insights? What are you willing to do differently based on this knowledge?

In Reimagining Racial Equity, we believe that self-awareness and integration of beliefs work hand in hand with the examination of systems. If you’re ready to do the work necessary to reimagine the culture within your organization consider participating in our next Reimagining Racial Equity series, September 20 – November 8, 2022.

Recent Posts

Sign Up for our Newsletter