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Culture, whether bound by organizational or national borders, contains layers of complexity within its definition.  One of these layers (behaviours) is visible to the eye while others can be deeply rooted beliefs and assumptions rarely noticed or discussed by its members.  Edgar Schein, a noted expert on corporate culture, named these layers —artifacts, values and assumptions.

Cultural artifacts are visible to our eye.  We can see the employees’ behaviours and their dress code as well as the design or architecture of the corporation.  Does everyone have an office?  Are the doors to offices open or closed?  Is it noisy or quiet when you enter the company’s workplace?  Can you hear the conversations, both in what is said and how it is said?  People who do not work in the organization can easily recognize a corporation’s artifacts, which is why I always tell job searchers to ask for a tour of the workplace where they are interviewing.

Most corporate leaders want their organization values to be as visible as their artifacts in order that employees and clients know what is considered most important and how to behave accordingly.  As a result, many companies post their values (e.g. – innovation, family, collaboration), including vision and mission, in visible, high traffic locations.  However, when values are imposed on staff rather than chosen by them, we often see a discrepancy between what is wanted (valued by management) and what is actually occurring.  This discrepancy leads us directly to the third layer of culture — assumptions.

Deeply embedded cultural assumptions are typically unconscious behaviours that have existed over a long period of time.  They are so much the fabric of a corporation that everyone inside now takes them for granted.  For example in a unionized workplace, a deeply embedded assumption usually held is that management and union are adversaries rather than collaborators advocating for the well-being of the organization and its employees.  This assumption is so widely held that even when we change the management of an organization (those who presumably determine the culture) or the union, the existing corporate culture will sustain itself.

Organizations, much like families who believe their problems are over when their ‘black sheep’ leaves, will discover that their deeply engrained operating dynamics (blame someone else, don’t confront authority, whomever shouts the loudest gets heard, long hours and hard work count the most, cut costs) resurface.

The current General Motors crisis (slow recall of cars with faulty ignition switches) attests to just how resilient a corporate culture can be.  As someone keenly interested in transforming competitive organization cultures into happy, healthy, humane communities of collaborative innovators, I was hopeful General Motor’s new female CEO, Mary Barra, would lead this traditional ‘old boy’s club’ into the 21st century.  However neither the recall crisis nor GM’s 2009 bankruptcy appear to have shifted its culture.  How do we know this?

Barra claimed she was not aware of the problems even though GM has employed her for 34 years.  Is Bara naïve or culturally blind?  I would feel much more confident in her ability to lead had she, instead of publically denying knowledge of the facts, owned the situation, apologized for it, guaranteed it would be corrected and the affected customers would be compensated.  Instead, Barra is replacing her human resources senior VP, which suggests to me GM sustains a culture of blame.  I wonder if those employed by GM would agree or can their culture only be seen by outsiders?

For more on shifting organization culture by redesigning systems instead of blaming people, click here.

Author: Helen Maupin

Author: Helen Maupin

Helen is passionate about transforming fear into love — from her, for her, for all. She expresses her commitment to transformation through writing poetry, self-awareness and yoga books, co-designing organizations into adaptive enterprises and deepening her daily meditation and yoga practices.

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