Edgar Schein’s Organizational Culture Triangle details three layers of organizational cultures: Artifacts, Espoused Values and Underlying Assumption. They are of differing levels of importance in shaping the actual culture of an organization.

Summary by The World of Work Project

Edgar Schein’s Organizational Culture Triangle

Edgar Sheins Organizational Culture Triangle captures part of Employee Experience

Edgar Schein’s Organizational Culture triangle says that there are different layers to the cultures within organizations. There are shallow layers that have some impact on an organizations culture or which may be some indication of what a culture is actually like. There are also deeper layers which provide a much greater insight into what a culture is actually like.

The three key layers that Schein discusses are:

Artifacts

Artifacts are the visible signs of an organizational culture. They are the shallowest indicator of what an organization’s culture is actually like. Artifacts can include things like posters, dress-codes, job-titles used and the style and design of workspaces.

While analyzing artifacts may give you some insight into what an organization’s culture is like, they won’t provide much insight. Similarly, while changing an organization’s artifacts might lead to some change in culture, it won’t achieve significant change.

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Espoused Values

Espoused values are the things that an organization says about its culture and ways of working. These are deeper indicators and levers of culture than artifacts, but shallower than underlying beliefs.

Espoused values include things like organizational values and behaviors, company or employee charters, team contracts, perhaps vision and mission statements and the types of things promoted through newsletters and so on.

Analyzing espoused values will provide some insight into an organization’s culture, and changing them will provide some level of change to organizational culture. The effects though won’t be huge.

Corporate values may include tenacity, and may be captured in artifacts such as posters. Just because they are espoused though, doesn’t mean that people really behave in this way.

Underlying Beliefs

The underlying beliefs held by members of an organization are significantly deeper indicators of an organization’s culture than either its artifacts or espoused values. They reflect the way that the organizational really works on the inside.

Underlying beliefs held by employees of an organization include assumptions about how they should work with each other. They also include beliefs about what behaviors will really lead to workplace success of failure. For example, many organizations espouse that remote working is a great thing, however employees may have underlying beliefs that you need to be physically present at work to be recognized by the organization.

Employees’ underlying beliefs are the strongest indicator of what an organization’s culture is actually like. This makes them the strongest levers of organizational change. However, they are also the hardest levers to influence.

Learning More

To learn more about organizational cultures, you might enjoy listening to this podcast. We don’t specifically cover Edgar Schien’s Organizational Culture Triangle within it, but we do have a general conversation about culture.

The World of Work Project View

We like Edgar Schein’s Organizational Culture Triangle. We think it’s a simple and useful way to think about organizational culture.

In our view, leadership behaviors have a huge impact on organizational culture. Employees are not stupid. If a leader tells them to act in a certain way (espousing values) but then rewards / punishes them in a way that’s not aligned to this espoused value, they will ignore the espoused value and develop their own set of underlying beliefs and assumptions which is stronger. It makes us think of leadership saying “do what I say, not what I do”, and an employee saying, “uh, no, I’ll do what you do…”.

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The concepts behind this post were first developed by Edgar Schein. You can read more in his 2004 book, Organizational Culture & Leadership.

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