Three Levels of Culture, Edgar Schein (1985)

The Three Levels of Culture is a model developed by Edgar Schein in 1985 to understand the layers of culture within an organization. Schein, a renowned organizational psychologist, proposed that culture is comprised of three interconnected levels that influence the behavior and values of individuals within an organization.

  • Artifacts and Behaviors: The visible and tangible aspects of culture are represented by artifacts and behaviors. These include the physical environment, dress code, rituals, ceremonies, symbols, language, and observable behaviors. Artifacts and behaviors are the most superficial and readily noticeable aspects of culture, and they provide clues about the deeper levels of culture.
  • Espoused Values: The second level of culture consists of espoused values, which are the stated or intended values, philosophies, and beliefs held by members of the organization. Espoused values reflect the aspirations and ideals that an organization aims to embody. These values are often articulated in mission statements, vision statements, and official documents that guide decision-making and behavior.
  • Basic Assumptions: The deepest and most implicit level of culture is made up of basic assumptions. Basic assumptions are the underlying, unconscious beliefs, perceptions, and taken-for-granted understandings that shape the behavior and thinking of individuals within the organization. They are deeply ingrained and often difficult to identify or change without conscious effort. Basic assumptions develop over time through shared experiences, history, and socialization within the organization.

According to Schein, the three levels of culture are interconnected and mutually reinforcing. Artifacts and behaviors are influenced by espoused values, which, in turn, are shaped by underlying basic assumptions. Changes at any level can have a cascading effect on the other levels of culture.

Understanding the three levels of culture is important for leaders and organizations as it provides insights into the values, norms, and shared beliefs that guide behavior within the organization. It helps leaders identify the gap between espoused values and actual behaviors and enables them to align culture with strategic objectives, improve communication, and drive organizational change.

It is important to note that the Three Levels of Culture model emphasizes the significance of the less visible and implicit aspects of culture. While artifacts and espoused values are more easily recognizable, the basic assumptions underlying them are often invisible but exert a profound influence on organizational behavior and decision-making.