Harness the Power of Culture in Changing Times

Have you ever worked somewhere that felt lacking in commitment, quality, or honesty? Maybe you looked at your bosses or coworkers and wondered why they refused to work harder, didn’t care about doing good work, or played fast and loose with the truth? Or perhaps you’ve been part of an organization where disagreements seemed needless and the values displayed on the walls were not experienced? Maybe they kept around brilliant assholes or people that never actually did any work or folks that seemed to be actively working against the group’s best interests?  

If you have spent any time managing or being managed, you’ve observed behaviors in the workplace that hindered its potential for being more productive, happier, and a more efficient environment, and even if you are an all-powerful CEO, you have felt powerless to fix those problems. 

Culture’s Root 

In almost all such cases, the root cause is a problem with culture. Culture, as defined by Edgar Schein of MIT’s Sloan School, is the often-unrecognized behaviors, beliefs, and meaning making structure of our lives. According to Schein, culture is made up of three things: Basic Assumptions, Espoused Values, and Behaviors & Artifacts. When we talk about culture, we typically talk about what we see and recognize – values, behaviors, and artifacts. 

The most important piece of culture that no one talks about is what is under the surface, governing how people see the world and what they unconsciously believe. These things under the surface are what Edgar Schein called Basic Assumptions. These are the mental models that shape our behaviors and expectations without us even realizing it. You have them. Everyone does. And, by definition, you are generally not aware of them. Successfully contending with your company’s challenges, from high turnover to low productivity, is contingent on developing an understanding of your organization’s collective Basic Assumptions.  

What unspoken assumptions might be guiding behaviors in your organization? 

Culture Crystalizing 

The genesis of Basic Assumptions in an organization is a subtle yet profound process, often unnoticed as it unfolds. These assumptions stem from the collective experiences and responses of the group that gradually solidify into the bedrock of a group’s culture. When a group first forms. It lacks a shared history and way of seeing the world. As time passes and challenges are dealt with though, successful modes of acting are learned. Over time, people forget the origin of and original reason for acting the way that they do and instead begin to just know that “this is the way”. 

For example, a company that finds early on that innovation and risk-taking result in the best outcomes will begin to reward those behaviors, naturally cultivating a culture where these behaviors are not just encouraged but expected. These behaviors, initially conscious choices, gradually transition into unconscious assumptions. Employees in such an environment may start to inherently value innovation and risk-taking without actively realizing that these preferences initially developed in response to specific needs and not simply because innovation and risk-taking are better full stop. 

Understanding Basic Assumptions is crucial for leaders. It allows them to grasp not just the visible aspects of their organization’s culture, but also the invisible, yet powerful, undercurrents that drive behavior and decision-making. Recognizing and, if necessary, reshaping these assumptions can be key to aligning the organization’s culture with its current needs and future aspirations while also ensuring that the people that make up an organization feel they are in a place where their behaviors, values, and expectations are reflected. 

Culture ≠ Values 

Often, when addressing cultural challenges, organizations focus on the more tangible elements: observable behaviors and explicitly stated values. This approach seems logical. For instance, if an organization collectively and consciously agrees on the importance of hard work, it naturally adopts ‘Hard Work’ as an espoused value. 

However, this approach can lead to misunderstandings. Consider a new hire who joins the team, professing to value hard work. Yet, he sticks to a strict 9-to-5 schedule and avoids work communications outside office hours. This behavior, not aligning with the organization’s expectations of being always on and working long hours, might result in him being placed on a performance improvement plan. But where does the problem lie? Is it a misrepresentation of his values, or a misalignment in the understanding of what ‘hard work’ truly means within the context of this organization? Or is it leaders not seeing Basic Assumptions and assuming that everyone interprets and understands values in the same way? 

To bridge the gap between espoused values and Basic Assumptions, leaders can adopt several key strategies. First, conduct value definition workshops where employees collaboratively explore and define what each organizational value means in practice. This encourages a shared understanding. Second, implement regular feedback sessions, allowing employees to express how they experience these values in their daily work. This could be through meetings or anonymous surveys. Finally, leaders should exemplify these values through their actions, setting clear behavioral examples for their teams. By integrating these approaches, leaders can align their organization’s stated values with its underlying cultural assumptions, creating a more authentic and cohesive workplace culture. 

Think about a core value in your organization. How might different interpretations of this value be affecting team dynamics? 

Culture Alignment 

To align your understanding of Espoused Values with Basic Assumptions, leaders can initiate value definition workshops, encouraging teams to collaboratively define what each value means to them. Regular feedback sessions can also be instrumental, allowing employees to share how they perceive and experience these values in their work life. Such inclusive approaches ensure that values resonate authentically across the organization. 

These sessions can be as simple as asking and exploring questions like: 

  1. What does this value mean to you? 
  1. What do you think when you hear this value? 
  1. How should it show up in someone’s behavior? 

There are also structured activities such as Teamwords, developed by Mary Paynter Sherwin and David Sherwin, that can help you in this process (in addition of course to reaching out to me at eric@bigwidesky.com). 

Culture Correction? 

This is where many leaders inadvertently stumble in their quest to align culture and fix morale, performance, and other issues. The scenario is all too common: leaders, often with the best intentions, seclude themselves to brainstorm. They emerge with a set of newly minted values, ready to be bestowed upon their staff like a modern-day Moses presenting the Ten Commandments. The expectation is that these values, once revealed, will miraculously steer the organization and people having problems in the desired direction, toward the holy land. But this approach is fundamentally flawed. The critical oversight here lies in the failure to recognize once again the power of Basic Assumptions. By not addressing these underlying assumptions and focusing only on values, leaders risk a significant disconnect. They assume a uniform understanding and acceptance of these values across the organization, which is rarely the case. 

The introduction of new values, no matter how well-crafted, is only a surface-level solution if it doesn’t engage with the deeper, more ingrained aspects of the organizational culture. Without delving into and understanding the group’s shared Basic Assumptions, these values risk becoming empty words, devoid of real impact or meaning or something that different people interpret and act out in different ways. 

What some leaders get right is understanding that culture change and alignment requires time, so if you’re lucky, your organization will plan for the appropriate change management. Unfortunately, this time is often treated like class time in which staff is simply expected to absorb the information instead of it being a collaborative time in which a collective understanding of the desired culture change can be created. As a result, even the most culturally enlightened leadership often fails in their efforts to set new direction and/or fix existing problems. 

Culture Inclusion 

Recognizing the limitations of a top-down approach, it’s essential to consider alternative, more inclusive methods. One effective strategy is to involve employees at all levels in the decision-making process when defining or redefining organizational values. This can be achieved through collaborative workshops or meetings where diverse groups of employees come together to discuss what these values mean to them and how they can be realistically integrated into their daily work. Such an inclusive approach ensures that the values resonate more authentically with the workforce and are not just seen as directives from the top. 

Additionally, conducting surveys and focus groups before introducing new values can provide invaluable insights into the existing cultural landscape of the organization. These tools can uncover employees’ perceptions, beliefs, and experiences, offering a clearer picture of the current culture. This understanding allows leaders to tailor new values in a way that addresses real issues and aligns more closely with the employees’ actual work environment and experiences. By taking these steps, leaders can create a more engaged and committed workforce, where values are not just imposed but are collectively embraced and lived by everyone in the organization. 

Reflect on a recent cultural initiative in your organization. Did it address the underlying assumptions, or did it focus solely on surface-level values? 

Culture Change 

As we navigate the complexities of organizational culture, it’s clear that understanding and aligning the underlying assumptions with our espoused values is not just beneficial, but essential for a thriving workplace. Reflect on your own experiences: 

How do your organization’s stated values align with the actual day-to-day behaviors? Are there gaps that need bridging, or assumptions that require reevaluation? 

If these questions resonate with you, or if you recognize the need for a deeper exploration of your organization’s cultural landscape, I invite you to reach out. Together, we can embark on a journey to uncover the hidden dynamics of your workplace culture, align your values with your team’s real experiences, and set a course for a more cohesive, productive, and fulfilling work environment. 

Don’t let cultural misalignments hold your organization back. Contact me at eric@bigwidesky.com, and let’s collaboratively turn these challenges into opportunities for growth and success.