Leadership and Organizational Culture: Conversations with Edgar Schein

On September 17th, 2015, our first cohort of Arts Leaders as Cultural Innovators (ALACI) attended their second seminar on organizational culture and adaptive change with Edgar Schein. Schein is one of our ALACI faculty members, and is a Professor Emeritus at the MIT Sloan School of Management who investigates organizational culture, process consultation, career dynamics, and organizational learning. He is the author of several books such as Corporate Culture Survival Guide and Humble Inquiry.


Fellows had three main learning objectives in this seminar:

  1. Identifying aspects of organizational culture
  2. Linking cultural issues to their work in the ALACI program
  3. Considering strategies they might take to foster an adaptive culture in their organizations

In the interview-based session, Schein shared some key lessons from his expertise in social psychology and organizational development. He talked about what organizational culture means, where it comes from, and why it is important to unpack. He explained and distinguished the three levels of culture–artifacts or visible behaviors, espoused values, and buried, invisible organizational assumptions. Here are some quotes from Edgar Schein that we found to be instructive:

“The best way to dig into the third level (invisible organizational assumptions) is to look for inconsistencies between what you observe happening in organizations and what they claim are their reasons and values. For instance, an organization might have an espoused value around teamwork, but when we look closer we might see that they only reward individual behavior, and not collective behavior.”

“What really drives an organization are long-term tacit assumptions that come out of your own organizational history. It’s what has worked in the past to make you successful.”

“Culture is in some ways the most stable part of an organization. One of the big mistakes that people make is that they launch a change program to do things differently without determining if the new change is consistent with the deeper assumptions and values of their organization’s life history.”

“The strength of a culture is the function of three things: the age of organization and how long it’s been in operation, how successful the assumptions have made it in the past, and whether the current leaders still promulgating the same assumptions.”

ALACI Cohort 1 Fellows dug into rich discussions following Schein’s interview about organizational culture as it applies to their own journey for adaptive leadership. Richard Evans, President of EmcArts, also facilitated a part of the seminar and made connections to three other frameworks on organizational culture: Ronald Heifetz’s work on adaptive leadership, Robert Quinn and Kim Cameron’s Competing Values Framework and Dave Snowden’s Cynefin Framework. Scholarship and tools from these three frameworks are also integrated into the ALACI leadership program.

Prompted by everything they had heard in the seminar, participants took some offline time to brainstorm ways to foster adaptive responses to their complex challenges. Following these internal discussions, they had the opportunity to ask Schein provocative questions such as:

“How come organizational culture is something we talk a lot about, but we don’t have any action items for?”

“In an organization where so much change is happening at once, where do you start? When you’re looking at so many problems over the last few years, what do you pull out in order to begin intervening?”

“When you’re a really old and established history organization, and you don’t have founders around, how far back do you go to source the root causes of processes, cultures, values?”

Arts Leaders as Cultural Innovators (ALACI) is EmcArts’ national adaptive leadership development program for individual change-makers in the arts and cultural sector. ALACI engages “rising influencers” in the arts in an intensive 18-month program to advance their skills in guiding adaptive change processes in their own organizations and across their community, and to expand local capacity in this vital area of organizational development. The first ALACI cohort includes 17 fellows from four communities – Tucson and Phoenix, Arizona; the State of Rhode Island and the Greater Washington DC area.  

Read more about ALACI fellowship goals, design elements, and eligibility here. You can find more information about our Cohort 1 fellows, faculty and executive coaches here.

EmcArts is accepting applications from New York City-based arts leaders of color for the second round of the ALACI program. Learn more about Cohort 2 and eligibility here. Application deadline is 12pm on November 12th, 2015.

ArtsFwd is an online community of arts and culture leaders committed to doing things differently in their organizations in order to stay relevant and vital in a changing world.