Culture Fundamentals – 9 Important Insights from Edgar Schein

Culture Fundamentals - 9 Important Insights from Edgar Schein

An Interview with Edgar Schein

Editor’s Note: This is the inaugural post of – our purpose is to positively impact society on a global scale through culture awareness, education, and action.

Culture is a hot topic but remains a tremendous opportunity for most organizations to further support their purpose, solve problems, and improve performance. One of the foremost authorities on the subject of culture is Edgar Schein, Professor Emeritus with MIT Sloan School of Management, and author of many best sellers including The Corporate Culture Survival Guide and, his most recent book, Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling.  He was recently interviewed for the launch of and a number of important culture insights were captured to help bring clarity to this deep and important topic.

1. Culture is a result of what an organization has learned from dealing with problems and organizing itself internally.

“I define culture as the sum total of everything an organization has learned in its history in dealing with the external problems, which would be goals, strategy, how we do things, and how it organizes itself internally,” which is how we’re going to relate to each other, what kind of hierarchy exists, etc. “These early learnings, if they are successful, become the definition but it’s always something that’s been learned. It’s not something that just can be imposed or that’s just there.”

2. Culture matters to the extent an organization is adaptive.

“If culture is like personality or character, then it matters in the sense to what extent is the culture adaptive to both the external and internal realities. If it’s not adaptive, it matters a lot. If it’s adaptive, it doesn’t matter much, people don’t notice it, they just go along their merry way. So culture really only matters when there is a problem. In the same sense that personality only matters when things aren’t working right for you. Otherwise it’s just there. It’s part of you.”

3. Do not oversimplify culture. It’s far more than “how we do things around here.”

“Culture operates at many levels and certainly how we do things around here is the surface level. I like to think of culture to be like the lily pond. On the surface you’ve got leaves and flowers and things that are very visible; a visitor would see them. That’s the ‘how we do things around here;’ but the explanation of why we do things in that way forces you to look at the root system, what’s feeding it and the history of the pond, who planted what. If you don’t dig down into the reasons for why we do things this way you’ve only looked at the culture at a very superficial level and you haven’t really understood it.”

4. Leaders should not focus on culture change. Focus on a business problem.

“If a leader just starts with how you change the culture then he already doesn’t understand the problem. You never start with changing. It’s like saying: would you decide someday to change your personality? The first question would be: Why? Why would you want to do that? That’s the question I would ask any leader who comes to me and says I think we need a culture change. I would say: 1) what do you mean by culture; and 2) why do you think you need to change at all? If he says “what do you mean,” I would say: what’s your business problem, what isn’t working, why are you change-oriented in the first place?

5. Your culture always helps and hinders problem solving

“When that (what isn’t working) is clearly defined as a business problem then we can ask the question: well given the culture, is that going to help you solve the problem or hinder you, and it always ends up being both. There are always parts of the culture that help solve the problem and other parts of the culture that get in the way. Then you’re finally at the point of saying – well maybe I need a culture change program – but you got there by thinking about the business problem you are trying to solve.”

6. Be very specific about behavior, how it’s impacting your problem and the future state of the behavior you want to see.

Once a leader has identified a problem, “the key is to become very specific.” Edgar explained an example where an organization was trying to improve sales. The sales culture was very competitive and they were working to build more collaboration. “I would ask a manager or a CEO who says that’s my problem to define that very precisely. If we solve this problem what’s the behavior look like a year from now.” I would force it to the point of them saying (for example), I guess I would have my salespeople go out as pairs and maybe even measure them as a pair. Now we are getting to where we can work something. How would we get the current people in sales to trust each other enough to go out as a pair? Now we can develop a program and say: how are we going to get there? “It’s all geared toward this concept of someday my salespeople are going to go out as a team and trust each other, and once I have that goal, I can begin to generate a change program.”

7. Culture is a group phenomenon. Engage focus groups to define how the culture is helping and hindering work on a problem.

“I would get together relevant groups of senior or middle managers and that becomes a tactical problem. What’s the right grouping to analyze the culture? Then I would sit that group down for a half day and say: here’s where we are trying to get, we want a collaborative salesforce. Let’s look at our culture from the point of view of what it is and how it is going to help and how it is going to hinder, but always in the context of what we are trying to do.”

8. Solve problems by identifying and resolving associated discrepancies between values and behavior

I would give them a model like the lily pond and say: “let’s talk about our culture at the surface level. What would somebody visiting here just see at this level.” I would put the information on flip charts “so we get a sense of who we are at the level of: this is how we look.” Next, look at the values that seem alive behind that. As we get those spelled out, ask how these values mesh with what we’ve said who we are and almost always you discover that we already have the teamwork value because we published that, we put it on all of our banners, so how come we’re not there?

That discrepancy between the values and the behavior is what forces you into looking at the root system and you discover that we have always been individualistic. We’re Americans, we’re competitive, it’s the only way we can really think deep down. Now you are at the deeper level of the culture. You have to confront it and it may be beyond realistic to think of salespeople going out as teams.” The idea of implementing group pay may be raised and some may say “you’ve got to be kidding.” The facilitator might have to say: “if you are not going to have group pay then maybe the goal you are trying for is not achievable. Maybe they can’t collaborate if they don’t feel they are being rewarded as a group.” It may be necessary to “tackle our assumption about group pay and invent our way to some new cultural elements. That would be an example of a deep cultural change. It’s not driven by someone saying let’s have group pay. It’s driven by the discovery that unless we have group pay we can’t solve the business problem, and that’s a learning process.”

9. Don’t focus on culture because it can be a bottomless pit. Again, get groups involved in solving problems.

“Don’t focus on culture because culture is a bottomless pit and can be a big waste of time. Just get your people involved in working on the solution to your business problem. If you don’t have time for that, you are in trouble (laugh). The way to work your business problem, again, is not necessarily to go to an outside expert but to develop an internal task force or problem solving group that will help you tackle the problem. The solution is in internal involvement, maybe with an outsider helping that internal group be a better group, but the solution will come out of your internal efforts not from some outsider.”

What do you think of these insights?  Do you agree or disagree and what else can you add? Post a comment below.

Editor’s Note: This is the first of two posts on the Edgar Schein interview. The post next week will be on Leadership, Humble Inquiry, and the State of Culture Work.  We thank Mr. Schein for the gracious sharing of his time and insights to support this interview leading up to the launch of

Interview Video: See the full 30 minute video of Part One of the Interview with Edgar Schein (Note – There was a theft of video equipment and we lost one camera angle so there are some minor issues with the content)

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About the Author

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Tim Kuppler

Faculty Tim Kuppler is the founder of Culture University and former Director of Culture and Organization Development for Human Synergistics, a 40+ year pioneer in the workplace culture field where he led collaboration and partnering efforts with culture experts, consulting firms, industry organizations and other groups interested in making a meaningful difference in their organization, those they support, and, ultimately, society. Currently with the Compass culture division of the staffing powerhouse, Insight Global, Tim authored Build the Culture Advantage, Deliver Sustainable Performance with Clarity and Speed, which was endorsed as the "go-to" resource for building a performance culture. He previously led major culture transformations as a senior executive with case studies featured as part of the 2012 best-selling book – Leading Culture Change in Global Organizations. He was also President of Denison Consulting, a culture assessment and consulting firm and is an accomplished speaker and recognized as a Top 100 leadership conferences speaker on Tim's 20 years of culture and performance improvement experience includes the rare mix of executive leadership, coaching, and consulting knowledge necessary to help leaders quickly improve team effectiveness and results as they focus on their top performance priorities, challenges, and/or goals. He networks extensively in the workplace culture field in order to learn and apply the latest insights from many experts.