The Onion Model: 3 Levels of Organizational Culture
3 Levels of Organizational Culture in 3 minutes or less.
A common sentiment in organizations is that change is hard – and that change usually comes slowly. Leaders at all levels seem to echo this belief. After countless hours, complex strategies are created to increase organizational effectiveness in an effort to achieve higher performance more quickly, and for less money.
In my experience, most leaders who are responsible for and involved in making organizational change are not aware of the complexities of developing a truly high performing culture. Leaders can benefit from learning more about the three main levels of organizational culture, to gain a deeper understanding of why change is hard for many people.
Edgar Schein, often referred to as the godfather of organizational culture, developed a model that illuminates three different levels of culture.
Those three levels are: artifacts, espoused values, and assumptions.
1. The first level, artifacts, are visible elements or signs that you can see with the naked eye when you walk into an organization, i.e., logos, architecture, clothing, etc.
2. Espoused values, the second level, are the values and rules of conduct that are adopted over time from every leader that comes into an organization; each leader brings their own set of values and rules of conduct.
3. The third level, assumptions, are deeply embedded in an organization and are experienced as unconscious behavior, therefore, are hard to recognize from within.
As an organizational consultant, one client I worked with for over 10 years was an aerospace company. I recall walking into one of the company’s manufacturing facilities and noticed that everyone wore the same short-sleeved top, like a polo shirt; I later learned they called it ‘team wear”.
My observation was an example of Schein’s first level of organizational culture, artifact. This artifact was immediately visible to me and informed me something about the location’s culture – that even though the organization was a global aerospace company, this facility wanted to set themselves apart from the rest of the company, and project a unified team promoting egalitarianism with all employees.
The second level of organizational culture, espoused values, are the norms or rules of conduct adopted over time from every leader that comes into the organization; each leader brings their own set of values and rules of conduct.
These values or rules of conduct are not visible to the naked eye like artifacts; however, they are expressed through behavior.
In the 10+ years I was at the aerospace company, I experienced the leadership transition of a few CEO’s and each of them had their own rules of conduct and values that all became embedded in and helped shape the company culture.
As Kotter & Cohen (2002) asserted in their book, The Heart of Change, the transition of CEOs encompasses one culture going out the door and another culture brought in.
The third level, assumptions, is the deepest level within an organization’s culture. At this level, assumptions are experienced as unconscious behavior and, therefore, not directly visible like the previous level of espoused values. Assumptions stem from people’s experiences and perceptions and are deeply embedded, and as a result make organizational change extremely difficult.
Schein’s three levels of organizational culture are sometimes referred to as the “onion model”, meaning that cultural change in an organization starts with the understanding that, similar to an onion, several layers must be peeled back and examined.
Some layers are easier to adapt and change such as the outer layer or artifacts level, and other layers are more challenging to adapt and change such as the core layer or assumptions level (Organizational Culture Model - Schein).
So, how can we create organizational change?
The premise for making change in organizations, starts with understanding the complexities of organizational culture. From there, initiate conversations with employees (formal and informal leaders) in the workplace and ask questions that pertain to each of the levels.
Questions such as:
What are some identifiable or visible signs within our organization?
What do our espoused values tell us about ourselves?
What are the hidden assumptions that remain unspoken and how can we shine a light on these assumptions?
Change doesn’t have to be hard, in fact most change is actually quite positive, leaders must adjust their own language and attitude about change in order to truly lead an organization through change effectively.
If you're looking for more guidelines on how to make healthy change in your organization, check out our services!
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💡 Editor's note: This post was originally published on February 19, 2020 and has been completely revamped and updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.