The World of Work Project

Edgar Schein’s Culture Triangle

Edgar Schein’s Culture Triangle says that there are three key layers to the culture in an organization: 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 Culture Triangle

Schein’s 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, and there are 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, and they are the shallowest indicator of what an organization’s culture is actually like. Artifacts can include things like posters within buildings, the dress-codes that employees adhere to, 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.

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, about what behaviors will really lead to success for them, about what behaviors may really lead them to failure. For example, many organizations espouse that remote working is a great thing, however employees may have underlying assumptions that you need to be physically present at work to be recognized by the organization.

The underlying beliefs held by members of an organization are probably 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.

The World of Work Project View

We like Edgar Schein’s 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…”.

Sources and further reading

Where possible we always recommend that people read up on the original sources of information and ideas.

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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