Understanding basic assumptions

One of the more pragmatic frameworks for understanding organizational culture is Edgar Schein’s “cultural iceberg” model, illustrating the three levels of culture – artifacts, espoused values and basic assumptions.

In short, artifacts are the highly visible manifestations of culture such as formal dress code, office decoration, events and celebrations etc. Espoused values are formal written down value statements and codes of conduct. Basic assumptions are underlying beliefs that have been shaped over time and integrated into the ways of working of the organization. Very often, these assumptions are so much taken for granted that they are practically unconscious to the organization and its people.

Schein describes how inconsistencies between artifacts and espoused values is an indicator that unconscious basic assumptions are at play that need to be reviewed and resolved to ensure cultural alignement.

An alternative (unauthorized) use of this model is to use it to analyze the behavior of individuals. As a coaching technique – or as a self development tool – uncovering discrepancies between conscious belief systems and actual behavior, individuals can be helped to better understand their own basic assumptions that guide their behaviour.

A person who praise responsibility but has a tendency to act irresponsibly may realize that he has a deeper basic assumption that he is actually more important than other people. By realizing this assumption, the person can be helped to focus more on the needs of other people, thus increasing the level of responsibility.

A leader who struggles to delegate although she is a firm believer in involvement and participation, may find that she has an even stronger basic assumption about maintaining control at all costs. Rather than working directly on delegating, she will now focus on trusting and letting go.

A person who consistently makes choices that maintains an undesired status quo may find that the basic assumption of “stability” is more important than confronting the need for change, that short term pain relief is higher prioritized than long term risks of maintaining the status quo etc. By getting these basic assumptions out in the open, the person may increase his conviction and commitment needed to make the required changes.

So we may ask ourselves – is our behavior consistent with our conscious values? If not, what hidden assumptions could be at play guiding our behavior?

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