Edgar Schein, MIT Sloan School of Management professor emeritus, has identified three levels of culture: artefacts, espoused values, and basic underlying assumptions. Artefacts, the most visible level, include everything from office layout to dress code. Espoused values encompass the organisation’s stated values and rules of behaviour. Basic underlying assumptions, the deepest and least visible level, are the taken-for-granted beliefs that are rarely discussed or thought about.

Schein also emphasised the importance of understanding an organisation’s culture before attempting to change it. He argued that culture change is only possible when the basic underlying assumptions are identified and challenged. Furthermore, he suggested that culture change is usually a result of survival anxiety, not learning anxiety. This means that people will only change their behaviour when they fear that not changing will lead to negative outcomes.

In terms of leadership, Schein proposed that effective leaders are those who can perceive the emerging patterns and cultural assumptions within their organisation and shape them into a coherent culture. He also highlighted that leaders must be able to create psychological safety for their employees, enabling them to share and discuss their thoughts and ideas without fear of retribution.

Finally, Schein warned against the use of the term ‘culture’ in a simplistic way, as it is a complex construct that encompasses many different aspects of an organisation. He suggested that ‘climate’ might be a better term for describing the observable behaviour and attitudes within an organisation.

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