Edgar Schein’s Anxiety & Assumptions: Powerful Ideas On Culture

Culture is a messy term. In 1952, two Academics, Kroeber and Kluckhohn, completed a comprehensive review of the term and found that by then there were over 134 definitions.

As Kroeber and Kluckhohn explored the history of the word, they found all roads pointing to Germany, where the word was emerging as “cultur”:

Kant, for instance, like most of his contemporaries, still spells the word Cultur, but uses it repeatedly, always with the meaning of cultivating or being cultured

It wasn’t until the late 1800’s that the word started to form into the modern form of the word, adopted by Anthropologists and other academics who were studying foreign cultures.

Sir Edward Tyler’s book Primitive Culture from 1870 is often marked as a shift toward the modern definition:

that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society

By the 1950s there were over 100 definitions of the word and that was before organizations started using the term.

In the 1980s, Edgar Schein’s research expanded the scope of the world to modern organizations and the way we talk about companies has never been the same.

Culture” Is Confusing

In my ten years working in strategy consulting, there was no concept that fascinated me more than “corporate culture.”

As I explored the topic and related research my fascination shifted from the topic to the fact that almost every company talked about their culture but rarely employed a single person within the organization that understood what culture was, how it was formed and shaped, and how it related to the survival of the company.

Even as HR has been elevated to the C-Level, most “people leaders” remain relatively oblivious to powerful ideas about organizational culture formed in the 1980s. This is both the result of our obsession with the latest and greatest ideas and the lack of belief in the value of human resources by other functions and leaders.

It is also the result of a lack of coherence around a set of norms for what a “serious” human resources professional might look like. Part of this is excused by the fact that human resources emerged as a reaction to other trends such as the disappearance of unions and the need for companies to manage benefits and even in a darker way, as the way Stalin thought about centralized planning and productivity in the gulags of Russia.

As human resources moves beyond the history of “personnel management” and limited views of human capacity, it must begin to take itself more seriously. Just as advertisers likely would look down upon anyone that had failed to read Ogilvy, it should be seen as a similar failure to not have read Schein.

In the following essay, I hope to go deeper into some of Schein’s ideas and give you a framework and lens of thinking about organizational culture.

This essay is a perfect starting point for thinking about how Schein’s work can apply to your company or even better still (as you will see) thinking about how to shape your culture from the founding or early stages of your company. We’ll walk through the following:

  1. How culture arises
  2. Why the idea of a unified, single culture is wrong
  3. A framework for thinking about culture (hint: it’s not actually a pyramid)
  4. The two factors that shape how a culture solidified
  5. The role of anxiety in learning and culture
  6. The stages of cultural development
  7. Identifying a “strong” culture
  8. How to assess culture in your own company

How does organizational culture arise?

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Edgar Schein’s 1984 article “Coming to a New Awareness of Organizational Culture” should be considered a must-read for anyone in the human resources function.

While I don’t suggest that his ideas are comprehensive, Schein is the best starting point for making sense of what we mean by culture in a business organization. Many other ideas such as Chaos Theory add much-needed nuance to modeling organizations, but Schein argues that we need to deeply understand a culture if we wish to shape it.

We need to not only understand what culture is but how it arises:

Many definitions simply settle for the notion that culture is a set of shared meanings that make it possible for members of a group to interpret and act upon their environment. I believe we must go beyond this definition: even if we knew an organization well enough to live in it, we would not necessarily know how its culture arose, how it came to be what it is, or how it could be changed if organizational survival were at stake.

Schein gives us his definition of organizational culture at the start:

Organizational culture is the pattern of basic assumptions that a given group has invented, discovered, or developed in learning to cope with its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, and that has worked well enough to be considered valid, and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems.

Culture Is Found In Groups

It is common for companies to claim a collective company culture, but this is not a good way for thinking about culture. While there may be common cultural elements across a large company, the culture that we care about is found in specific teams of individuals.

He finds the group or team element important enough to define it as a “set of people:

1. who have been together long enough to have shared significant problems,

2. who have had opportunities to solve those problems and to observe the effects of their solutions

3. who have taken in new members. A group’s culture cannot be determined unless there is such a definable set of people with a shared history.”

Schein saw many people define a group of people based on a certain culture and felt that was a logical mistake.

Culture is a result of the behavior of individuals and not the other way around. There is no culture unless a group “owns” it.

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Modeling Organizational Culture

Often shown as a pyramid, Schein’s original model was presented as three different layers. Cultural concepts can move between these two layers over time and are associated with different levels of awareness within the organization.

The three levels:

  1. Artifacts: These are the “visible” symbols of the culture. It can include anything from clothing styles to posters on the wall to the volume of speech. Even if not understood, the artifacts that last are typically deeply tied to the underlying culture.
  2. Values: These are the “espoused” values – often found on company websites and also the area which has the greatest chance of being disconnected from reality.
  3. Basic Assumptions: These are the beliefs that people use to make day-to-day decisions within an organization. For example, an assumption may be that “it is best to speak up when I have a good idea.” Judging the assumptions and trade-offs people make on a day-to-day basis is often the quickest way to understand the “real” culture.

One of the biggest traps when analyzing a company is to look at the “artifacts” and make assumptions about the culture. You may walk into an office that has ping pong and foosball tables and think the culture embraces having fun during the workday. If you spent a week at the company and realize that everyone assumes you should wait until 6 pm to play any games, you’d realize the culture is something a bit different than your initial assessment.

In Schein’s framing, to look at the artifacts is to avoid looking at the “cultural essence” of the company.

How A Culture Solidifies

Schein said that the culture of a company emerges and solidifies in two ways:

  1. Positive problem-solving processes
  2. Anxiety avoidance

The first category is really how the company solves and reacts to problems. This is a big factor early in a company’s history as the company will typically face many challenges. How it solves those challenges will have a big impact on the future cultural DNA of the company.

This is mostly a good thing and if a company continues to grow, it is likely because its default way of thinking about and solving problems is scalable to larger and larger issues.

However, there is also a shadow side that emerges early in a company’s growth. This is what Schein calls “anxiety avoidance,” or behaviors that help groups to minimize anxiety. Common ways this shows up in a company is through the desire for order, consistency, and control, or ways of relating to others that minimize conflict.

Schein says that the behaviors that result from anxiety avoidance can be the “most stable”:

once a response is learned because it successfully avoids anxiety, it is likely to be repeated indefinitely

One common but frustrating behavior we see in companies is to have a “default to highest-ranking person’s opinion” assumption. This may have helped the company make decisions and avoid internal conflict early on in the company’s fight for survival but it may not be beneficial as the company scales.

Anxiety & Learning

To understand Schein and his model of corporate culture, it’s worth going a bit deeper into his ideas of anxiety and learning.

In the early 1990’s there was a lot of research on “learning organizations” and identifying ones that were better at adapting to change. I still think this is some of the best thinking that’s come out of organizational studies, but seems to have been lost to a lot of the energy around the internet and technology that took the business world in a more exciting direction.

Schein sees anxiety as a fundamental component of learning.

Anxiety inhibits learning, but anxiety is also necessary if learning is going to happen at all.

He deems these two kinds of anxieties “learning anxiety” and “survival anxiety.” Only survival anxiety can help us overcome learning anxiety.

“Learning anxiety” is familiar to most of us. When we start learning something new it brings up feelings of being an impostor and forces a reckoning with the fact that we may not have that much competence in a specific domain.

Further, learning risks us being pushed out of groups that matter to us. Anyone who has proposed a new way of doing something at work and has experienced a disproportionate response knows what I mean. It’s not that the idea is bad, people just don’t want to risk not belonging.

Schein believed the only way to overcome this tension was through “survival anxiety.” This is the feeling that if we don’t learn something new, we will not survive.

Threading the needle of creating survival anxiety that helps people orient in the right direction without creating too much fear is hard:

Most companies prefer to increase survival anxiety because that’s the easier way to go. And that, I think, is where organizations have it absolutely wrong. To the extent that our present managerial practices emphasize the stick over the carrot, companies are building in strong resistance to learning.

Shifting this dynamic is hard, if not impossible for a company with a solidified culture. It would involve leaders dramatically changing their own behavior before implementing any formal policies.

Schein is typically skeptical of managerial attempts to impose learning and finds many attempts end up being coercive:

Managers have to realize that it’s important not to put a value on learning per se because doing that can be dysfunctional. Consider something as ostensibly innocuous as the learning that is supposed to take place at the off-site meetings and Outward Bound programs that many companies now sponsor. These companies force their employees to climb trees all day and then reveal personal stuff to one another at night.

So yes, the group has learned something. But that learning was coerced, and the resulting new team may be dysfunctional because its members are not necessarily being true to themselves. In fact, there are occasions when individuals do the organization a huge favor by refusing to learn.

Schein is telling us that if an organization aspires to be an adaptive learning organization, it needs to have the humility to realize that it won’t be able to plan learning for its people.

Learning is not a top-down directive. It’s a messy process that may not take you in the expected directions.

Stages Of Culture

Schein says that learning and culture go hand in hand and are continuously being shaped:

culture is perpetually being formed in the sense that there is constantly some sort of learning going on about how to relate to the environment and manage internal affairs

However, the initial founding and early stages of a company are pivotal. During the period the behaviors and norms established by the company and especially the founder and key leaders will set the tone for the culture of the company for years.

Schein described this period as “clarification, articulation, and elaboration.”

At a certain point, the company reaches mid-life. This is when the company has stabilized with a number of learned “anxiety avoidance” and problem-solving behaviors.

At this stage, new employees join the company without a deeper understanding of the context of how the culture was formed. It is also at this stage that understanding that context is crucial if you wish to make a change.

In order to shift the culture, you will need to deeply understand what makes the culture stable and why. Schein notes that this period brings up a stressful strategic decision for many company leaders:

Whether the organization needs to enhance the diversity to remain flexible in the face of environmental turbulence, or to create a more homogeneous “strong” culture (as some advocate] becomes one of the toughest strategy decisions management confronts, especially if senior management is unaware of some of its own cultural assumptions

Finally, the culture reaches maturity or decline because either the market the company competes in is mature or the culture has become “excessively stable.” At this point, change may be all but impossible because of how deeply people are attached to the underlying assumptions

Such managed change will always be a painful process and will elicit strong resistance. Moreover, change may not even be possible without replacing the large numbers of people who wish to hold on to all of the original culture.

Strong Cultures

If we can define a culture of a company we can also define how strong the culture is. Schein’s definition of cultural strength is as follows:

The “strength” or “amount” of culture can be defined in terms of (1) the homogeneity and stability of group membership and (2) the length and intensity of shared experiences of the group.

If a company has had to navigate many crises for survival, the company will likely have formed a strong culture. Alternatively, if the company has not been around long and has had a relatively easy ride to success, it may have a weaker culture. This can set the company up for disaster when they scale and face their first large challenge.

It is important to realize that cultural strength does not mean effectiveness. You can have a strong culture that doesn’t serve you anymore. Think about Kodak which was known for having an incredible branding and marketing culture, but failed to adapt to the shifting digital photography landscape.

I’ve also written about my experience at McKinsey which I believe has both a strong and effective culture. At McKinsey, the first week of training gives us a clue of how seriously they take the culture.

Instead of learning tools and ways of working, we were taught the history of the firm, given a book by Marvin Bower, one of the most influential people in the firm’s history, and shown videos of people talking about the firm values. These values were then reinforced by sharing stories and direct references in the work.

McKinsey’s strong culture enables it to be incredibly successful in the current market environment, but that same culture means it is more at risk than other firms if that environment ever shifts.

Assessing Culture In Practice

Even Schein admits that “Organizational culture as defined here is difficult to study.” At its core, it is still about uncovering the underlying assumptions of behavior.

In my own experience, there is no substitute for time spent within the culture and a deep examination of the behaviors, practices, and beliefs. This means engaging in in-depth interviews, surveys, and observation at all levels of the organization.

Schein gives us four lenses to look at culture:

Four Ways To Assess Culture (Schein, 1984)
1. Analyzing the process and content of socialization of new members

2. Analyzing responses to critical incidents in the organization’s history

3. Analyzing beliefs values and assumptions of culture creators or carriers

4. Jointly exploring and analyzing with insiders the anomalies or puzzling features observed or uncovered in interviews

Taking a similar approach, I worked with a smaller company on a project to help them understand their own culture. It was surprising to me how everyone had a bit of understanding of the culture, but not a comprehensive view, and all struggled to answer the question “what is the culture?”

Instead, I asked questions like:

  • What is a belief that people seem to hold here?
  • What is a way of behaving that is rewarded here?
  • How do people solve problems, especially when stressed?
  • What is something that an outsider might say about your team?

From there you can start to piece together some of the common assumptions and begin to test them with people: “it seems that when X happens, people do Y, is this right?”

Through interviews and surveys, we identified six cultural characteristics and tried to define them as specifically as possible. Each of these was backed by a story or specific evidence. For example, “we do the right thing for clients even at short-term financial cost” was not just a boilerplate statement, it was actually backed up with several stories that “proved” the point.

This is much harder in large organizations, but you can still use the same general approach. In my time working at consulting firms, we would work with thousand-person organizations that may not have a single strong culture, but often have a few elements which seem to have been deeply embedded in the assumptions of most employees.

The danger is when company leaders want to identify a comprehensive culture for a large-scale organization. Instead, these leaders are usually better suited if they identify one or two values that do resonate as true for most employees and then embrace the fact that there will be several sub-cultures across the organization that cannot be controlled in a top-down manner.

No matter the level of the organization or type of organization, the best lens to understand culture is to understand the underlying mythos or stories of the firm. What are the stories you were told when you started? What are the stories that people tell you about how things are? How do you solve problems here?

If you’re interested in more ideas around culture, my friend Andrew runs a great site called Curious Lion – one of my favorite articles is his summary of Peter Senge’s book The Fifth Discipline.

About Paul Millerd

Paul is a writer, creator, and curious human that is passionate about how people can reimagine their relationship with work to do things that matter. He published The Pathless Path in 2022.

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