The Onion Model: 3 Levels of Organizational Culture

The Onion Model: 3 Levels of Organizational Culture

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It’s a common statement shared and heard in organizations that change is hard – a statement made by leaders at all levels.  A lot of time is spent and strategies created to increase organizational effectiveness and achieve higher performance.  I assert that a majority of people responsible for and involved in making organizational change is not aware of the three levels of organizational culture and, therefore, could benefit from learning more about these three levels and a deeper understanding of why change is hard.  

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. 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.  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. The third level, assumptions, are deeply embedded in an organization and are experienced as unconscious behavior, therefore, are hard to recognize from within.

Next, I will explore these three levels in a little more depth.  As an organizational consultant, I worked for an aerospace company for over 20 years.  I recall walking into one of the company’s manufacturing facilities located in a different state, and noticed that everyone wore the same short-sleeved top, somewhat similar to 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 my eye and informed me something about the location’s culture – that even though it was the same aerospace company this facility wanted to perhaps set themselves apart from the rest of the company, and project as a unified team or promote 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 20+ years I was at the aerospace company, I experienced the leadership transition of four 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 just like espoused values or second level of organizational culture.  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 is sometimes referred to as the “onion model”, meaning making cultural change in an organization starts with the understanding that there are several layers, similar to an onion, that should 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 (https://www.toolshero.com/leadership/organizational-culture-model-schein/).  

In conclusion, the premise for making change in organizations, I believe, starts with understanding Schein’s three levels 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 and what do they tell us about