Edgar Schein died last month.. With his passing, the world lost a giant of organizational culture. It is my hope that this month we can pay tribute to his wisdom by sharing some of our thoughts on this difficult, but extremely important topic.
Why should we care about company culture?
I have always found it difficult to describe what culture is. Peter Drucker’s comment “Culture eats Strategy for breakfast” highlights the importance of culture We might know that it matters, but this doesn’t help us to understand what it is.
Edger Schein defines culture as “a pattern of shared basic assumptions that was learned by a group as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, that has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems”.
Although complex, this is a very good technical definition of culture. It highlights the tacit assumptions that underlie culture and how these assumptions developed. It speaks to the role of external forces as well as the need for social integration on the shaping of culture. Lastly it speaks to the teaching of culture to new members.
However, it specifically does not address:
- How to teach culture and how to engage and invite new members into an existing company culture
- The role of the new member in culture
- The ultimate purpose of culture
I would like to suggest that answers to the above questions can be found in a poem by Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Can rules or tutors educate
The semigod whom we await?
He must be musical,
Alive to gentle influence
Of landscape and of sky,
And tender to the spirit-touch
Of man’s or maiden’s eye:
But, to his native centre fast,
Shall into Future fuse the Past,
And the world’s flowing fates in his own mould recast.
The author starts by admitting that “rules or tutors” are not able to teach culture. There is a clear distinction between those areas of knowledge that can be taught and those that need to be caught. Culture is the latter and it often requires a slow process of diffusion to take hold. This explains why companies that grow too quickly often introduce profound culture challenges.
Who is the “semigod whom we await”? This is the future you and is addressed to the reader, the person who will be shaped by the culture that they are part of. The use of the word “semigod” is profound because it intimates that we have the ability to reshape the world when we stand up to challenges and respond to them constructively.
Since culture must be caught, the reader is asked to be open to the lessons of the correct way, to perceive, to think and to feel. This is a passive form of learning, a catching. Just like we let music wash over us and do not critically reject it without first listening we are asked to be “Musical” to open up to what we hear. To be “Tremulous” is to allow yourself to become vulnerable and let the message pass our inner defences so it can touch our heart and in so doing become “impressionable”.
The shaping of the group occurs because they are “Alive to the gentle influence”. We need to be open to being influenced by our environment “Of landscape and of sky” when it demands that we remain relevant i.e. external adaptation. In addition the internal integration needs of our group “Of man’s or maiden’s eye” is a critical factor in the shaping of group culture.
However, a person is not a blank slate and they bring their own unique and powerful talents to the group that they become part of. The poet acknowledges this and says “to his centre fast … shall into Future fuse the Past”. The “Past” are the “shared basic assumptions” that have worked well in the past and therefore are considered valuable for the future. The “Future” is the future you, the “semigod whom we await”.
The author then ends off by laying down the awesome responsibility each of us must bear. We are the custodians of a better world to come. It is in our hands (“in his own mould”) that “the world’s flowing fates” will be “recast”.
At the end of the day it is us who are going to be answering the challenges of the future. We are going to need to bring in (“fuse”) the lessons of the past together with our own unique abilities, talents and insight to create a hero who can stand up to the challenges of the present. We are the heroes, who ultimately create a world of the future that we all dream of handing over to our children as our legacy.
One of the key success factors that a company has is its culture. Only a tiny fraction of companies survive the start-up phase and an even smaller percentage go on to become successful. A key ingredient of this journey was the culture. Not passing on the past ingredients of success could well pose an existential crisis to the future wellbeing of the organization.
Simon Sinek explains that business is an infinite game and that companies that forget this will be relegated to the waste bin of history. In my opinion the secret to remaining relevant (playing the infinite game) is to be found in understanding what our culture is, pruning off the parts that hold us back and then introducing and promoting those parts that keep us healthy.
Edgar Schein and Ralph Waldo Emerson have provided us with the keys to unlocking the building blocks of culture – both those of the past and of the future.