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.

About the Author

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Edgar Schein

Faculty Ed Schein received his PhD in Social Psychology from Harvard in 1952, worked at the Walter Reed Institute of Research for four years and then joined MIT where he taught until 2005. He has published extensively in Organizational Psychology, 3d Ed. (1980), Process Consultation Revisited (1999), career dynamics (Career Anchors, 4th ed. With John Van Maanen, 2013), organizational culture texts (Organizational Culture and Leadership, 4th Ed., 2010; The Corporate Culture Survival Guide, 2d Ed., 2009), and analyses of Singapore’s economic miracle (Strategic Pragmatism, 1996), and Digital Equipment Corp.’s rise and fall (DEC is Dead; Long Live DEC, 2003). He continues to consult and recently has published a book on the general theory and practice of giving and receiving help (Helping, 2009) and a book on Inquiry (Humble Inquiry, 2013). He is the 2009 recipient of the Distinguished Scholar-Practitioner Award of the Academy of Management and the 2012 recipient of the Life Time Achievement Award from the International Leadership Association.