A Preview of Organizational Culture and Leadership from Edgar Schein

Edgar Schein: Insights from the Fifth Edition of Organizational Culture and Leadership

Edgar Schein and the subject of organizational culture are forever linked due to his pioneering efforts in the field. His hallmark book, Organizational Culture and Leadership1, has been a resource for more than 30 years. Ed shared insights from an upcoming fifth edition (now released) of this important book during an interview at the Human Synergistics Ultimate Culture Conference.

The original motivation for the book

Ed explained his original motivation came from things he encountered in his consulting. He shared an important example as he contrasted his initial work with Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) and Ciba-Geigy. DEC didn’t want him telling them how to be better at something; they wanted process help. Ciba-Geigy was “the opposite”— they wanted expert advice. He wondered what was going on in these organizations.

The concept of Culture DNA

“Gradually over the years, as I got more and more of this experience, I realized that there are what you might call DNA factors in the cultural genome.” Ed, who has consistently warned against oversimplifying the topic of culture, said he is more interested in the DNA of the culture. “What are the things that, when we try to change cultures, turn out to be huge barriers?”

Ed explained, “We say, for example, we want a team-based organization. If you suggest in a US company that maybe, in that case, you ought to change the reward system to be team based…and make groups accountable, you get kind of a frozen look from your client. What’s behind that resistance? What’s behind it is that at that point, we’re not dealing with an organizational culture at all. We’re dealing with the DNA of the US culture, and the DNA of the managerial culture, which is heavily individual-accountability based.”

You cannot change culture in the middle.
-Edgar Schein

The importance of macro cultures

“I began to realize toward the end of the fourth edition that we’ve got to become more international and really look at the DNA that’s embedded in the country value systems and country assumptions about how things should be. One of the major differences in this next edition is a great deal more emphasis on how organizations are nested in larger cultural units. A US organization is based in the US, and that may even vary in different parts of the US. A German organization is based in Germany, and what’s the role of these national cultures?” Ed continued, “As culture changers, which is what most of us here are probably supposed to be with great difficulty, we have to learn how to deal with these national DNA factors in the very work that we do.”

Change is all about relationships

“You can’t produce changes if you don’t have a relationship with your client. Lo and behold, you discover that every society discriminates around different kinds of relationships. At one level, we have a transactional relationship: professional distance, role-related, and bureaucratic,” says Ed. “In those same societies—and think in the US, for example—we know the difference between a role-related, distant, bureaucratic relationship and a personal relationship.”

Ed believes you need to decide if “you are going to treat the other individual as a total human being or just as a representative of a role.” Ed identified the transactional relationship as Level One and the personal relationship as Level Two. He thinks that “one of the reasons we don’t get anywhere in our change efforts is because we’re staying at that Level One relationship.” He feels we should be concerned about why they want a particular change and what’s worrying them. This theme is a continuation of insights from his recent book, Humble Consulting2, “which is all about how to get into a relationship with your client so that you can uncover what’s really going on.”

Culture is a bottomless pit of questions and problems.
-Edgar Schein

“Quick and Dirty” Culture Assessments

Ed discussed a whole new chapter he co-wrote with his son, Peter Schein. It covers the software-assisted “quick-and-dirty assessments to discover your culture immediately if you just take this 10-item test.” Ed believes the DNA of our managerial culture is driving the emergence of these assessments. He continued, “the managerial culture is deeply embedded in measurement, in pragmatism, doing it fast, particularly out here in Silicon Valley.”

He encouraged change agents to understand what’s going on with the leader and why speed is so important. Find out what’s worrying them and why they won’t consider “a more intensive probe of the kind that Human Synergistics might provide.”

Push for specifics about culture

“I’m almost tempted, when I get into a client situation or a coaching situation, to say: let’s have this entire conversation without using the word culture,” Ed explained. “Let’s see where that gets us. It forces us to be specific. I have that same reaction to what Rob [Cooke] told you [in a prior conference interview]. When someone says, ‘I think we need a more Constructive style,’ I say ‘what are you talking about?’ I force them to give examples that might come right out of the survey. Until we’re down at the behavioral level of what client A means by Constructive behavior, I won’t know how to be helpful.”

The role of measurement is bell-clear once you know what you are trying to measure.-Edgar Schein

Combining qualitative and quantitative culture analysis

“If a client says vaguely, ‘I want to understand my culture,’ I do not advise a quantitative tool because there is no one quantitative tool that covers a word like culture. Culture is too vast a field. The qualitative has to come up front: What are you trying to do? What problem are you trying to solve?” Ed urged change agents to develop a Level Two relationship and understand what leaders are trying to do. It may then be “entirely appropriate to utilize a measurement tool.”

Ed explained, “the advantage of the quantitative is you can deal with large numbers and compare them and look at trends over time. For that purpose, the qualitative isn’t very helpful.” After quantitative analysis, “we have to go back to qualitative because a program of actually intervening in the organization is not going to fly out of the numbers. The numbers will only tell you roughly where you have to work and the direction in which you have to go. The steps of the intervention, what you’re actually going to do day by day, is going to be a qualitative process because that organization will have all kinds of unique aspects that the quantitative doesn’t pick up.”

The CEO must own the culture

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According to Ed, “if you really are dealing with a cultural variable, like the degree to which it’s Constructive, you really have to start with the CEO. You cannot change culture in the middle. Over and over again we’ve seen very effective changes in the middle or at the bottom; a new CEO comes in and says ‘what’s all this’ and changes everything overnight. That happens all the time. Therefore, if culture is really involved, the culture piece is owned by the CEO, whether he or she admits it or not.

Culture is owned by the CEO, whether he or she admits it or not.
-Edgar Schein

“Those of you who are here in HR and OD and various kinds of ancillary roles, find a way to seduce your CEO into owning the culture piece. If he says to you, ‘I want a new culture, go make it happen,’ fight back immediately and say ‘whoa, wrong conception here.’ We can’t make it happen. You have to make it happen, and we may be able to help you. But don’t try to do this on your own, because you’re too vulnerable. It may work for a while, but the CEO, and the executive suite, and the board has all the power in the world to change things overnight and undo all the good work that you may have done. I don’t think HR particularly understands this well enough. They have developed the notion that they really do have the power to manipulate culture. I don’t think that’s realistic. I think that can be an illusion. The CEO may say, ‘I’m all for this, go do it.’ Don’t believe him or her, because you haven’t uncovered the DNA in that person and what they will and won’t support as you go down the road.”

Obtaining the Fifth Edition of Organizational Culture and Leadership3

In closing, Ed shared that the new edition of his book would be available in December or January. (Now available on Amazon.)


1, 3 Schein, E. & Schein, P. (2016). Organizational Culture and Leadership (5th ed.). Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons.
2 Schein, E. (2016). Humble Consulting: How to Provide Real Help Faster. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

So You Want to Create a Culture?

Culture is “in” these days, so I get a lot of inquiries about creating a culture, usually around “engagement” or “service” or “innovation.” My typical response is “Why do you want to do that?” or, alternatively, “Can you give me an example of what you have in mind?” Why don’t I just say, “Sure, and here is how you do it.”?1 There are several reasons.

First, unless you are an entrepreneur founding a new enterprise you cannot “create” a culture. Culture is what a group or organization has learned during its lifetime. If you are a leader of an established organization you already have a culture. In fact, if you have been around for a while, you are so embedded in your culture that you are not aware of how much it determines your daily behavior. Culture for you and your employees is like water for the fish.

Second, along with my question of “Why would you want to do that?” I would next ask, “What is worrying you? What do you observe that causes you to want to create something new?” Your present culture shows up in your employees’ or customers’ behavior. What’s the problem? Are your employees not engaged enough and why does this worry you? Are you feeling that your organization needs to be more innovative and you don’t see much new stuff coming from its members? Are your customers suddenly unhappy with your product or service? In other words, before you start messing with culture, what is the “business problem” that worries you and that you are trying to fix?

Third, once you have a clear sense of your business problem and have worked out what you want to change by projecting forward what you would like to see in the future in the way of concrete behavior, then you are finally ready to ask the culture question: “Will our existing culture aid or hinder the business change goal that I have defined?” Now you realize that before you can “create a new culture” you had better examine your present culture and see whether it will help or hinder.

Now, fourth, you have to confront the reality that your culture consists of many components and operates at different levels of “depth” or awareness. Your culture is a set of beliefs or assumptions that have worked for you and given meaning to your present way of working. It covers how you think strategically, what your brand or identity is, how you structure yourself and the daily business processes by which you operate.  Yes, it actually covers all those elements. As to level of awareness, at the deepest level are your beliefs, values, and assumptions that made your organization successful, your core identity. At the surface, there are all the norms and rules of behavior that are embedded in your incentive and reward systems.2

Fifth, now that you understand what you are dealing with, you want to assess your present culture in order to figure out whether or not you have to change some culture elements or bring in some new values and processes. Because some of the culture elements are deep and out of awareness, you need to do group interviews to get at what they are, what the DNA of your culture is. That will lead you to interviews and surveys that will tell you not only what some of the norms and behavioral rules of your organization presently are, but will also enable you to find out what your employees might prefer. Now you are finally ready to examine whether or not the existing culture you have will aid or hinder your “fixing” your business problem.

Sixth, you now realize that your biggest problem in moving forward is how you will manage the change process—that is, how you will harness what you have learned about culture and how it operates in a change program that will (a) draw on your cultural strengths and (b) either change cultural elements that are barriers to your desired change and/or create some new norms and values that you desire.3 But remember, those new elements won’t take hold unless they fit into your existing culture.

Hear my closing comments on culture and change management in this video clip from the 1st Annual Ultimate Culture Conference, and feel free to share your Likes, Tweets, and Comments via the social media buttons below.

Visit our video library to view the full video of Professor Schein’s talk on Culture Change Dilemmas in a Fast-Moving World and subscribe to receive email updates from ConstructiveCulture.com. The full presentation includes an explanation of his new lily pond analogy (image below), portraying the way in which the components of culture operate at different levels of depth and awareness, as briefly mentioned in his fourth point above.


Editor’s Note: This is the first of a series of posts that will include video content from Human Synergistics’ 1st Annual Ultimate Culture Conference. The conference was a huge success and we extend our sincere thanks to the attendees and outstanding speakers—beginning with Professor Edgar Schein, author of this week’s blog post. Sign up to receive all of our posts on ConstructiveCulture.com and view full video presentations from the conference.


1Schein, Edgar H. (2013). Humble inquiry: The gentle art of asking instead of telling.  San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.

2Schein, Edgar H. (2010). Organizational culture and leadership, 4th Edition. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass/Wiley.

3Schein, Edgar H. (2009). The corporate culture survival guide, 2nd Edition. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass/Wiley.