3 Levels of Organizational Culture

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Iceberg Organizational Culture copy
Some aspects of organizational culture are visible on the surface, like the tip of an iceberg, while others are implicit and submerged within the organization.

Welcome to the second installment of our weekly feature, The Tipster, bringing you easy-to-digest tips on topics that matter to your innovative work, such as: the roles of individuals on teams, how to give good feedback, different kinds of group decision-making processes, and the different modes of engaging with the arts.

This Week: What are the levels of organizational culture?

According to Deal and Kennedy:

Organizational culture is the way we get things done around here.

Your organization’s culture is the biggest factor in how hard or easy it will be for you to continue being innovative and embrace the risks of change.  It will also hugely impact how effectively you are able to enroll others, internally and externally, to your new approaches.  

Where does organizational culture come from?

Edgar Schein suggests that, fundamentally, culture is: “A pattern of shared basic assumptions that the group learned as it solved its problems that has worked well enough to be considered valid and is passed on to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems.”

But, because these ingrained assumptions are tacit and below the surface, they are not easy to see or deal with, although they affect everything the organization does.  

What are the three levels of organizational culture?

Because it’s pervasive, and also subterranean, Schein suggests there are, in fact, 3 levels on which organizational culture makes its presence felt:

  • Typical organizational Behaviors form the most observable level of culture, and consist of behavior patterns and outward manifestations of culture, such as perks provided to executives, dress codes, the level of technology utilized (and where it is utilized), and the physical layout of work spaces. Some notable characteristic behaviors may have considerable longevity – such as rites, ceremonies, organizational myths, and “shop talk.”
  • Values underlie and, to a large extent, determine behavior, but they are not directly observable (as behaviors are). There may be a difference between stated and operating values (the values the organization espouses, and those that are actually “in use”). Organizational values are frequently expressed through norms–characteristic attitudes and accepted behaviors that might be called “the unwritten rules of the road”–and every employee quickly picks them up.
  • To really understand culture, we have to get to the deepest level: the level of Fundamental Assumptions. An organization’s underlying assumptions grow out of values, until they become taken for granted and drop out of awareness.

These levels may be viewed like an iceberg, with the most immediately visible level at the top, while the others are generally submerged or implicit.

What’s your experience been with identifying, working with, or changing the culture at your organization? Share your comments below.

What is the culture at my organization?

Use this 15 minute activity as a guide to describe the typical behaviors, values, and assumptions at your organization.

Activity: Exploring Organizational Culture

Looking for more inspiration?

We also encourage you to explore our Innovation Stories collection, which shares narratives from organizations that are daring to do things differently in order to adapt to their rapidly shifting environment.

Interested in pursuing adaptive change work at your own organization? We encourage you to check out some of the service offerings from EmcArts, the nonprofit service provider behind ArtsFwd.

Every week, the Tipster brings you easy-to-digest bits of inspiration to challenge your thinking and advance your practice.