Culture Development

Edgar Schein Models on Organizational Culture

The late Edgar Schein was a professor at MIT Sloan School of Management. He was one of the biggest contributors to culture change and organizational management in the professional world. He wrote several books and was the first to use “psychological safety” in an academic paper. Organizational culture was one of his largest areas of expertise. 

If you’re interested in learning more about the Edgar Schein organizational culture, you’re in the right place. Although Schein passed away on January 26, 2023, his statements on organizational culture and beyond have a lasting impact on culture change and organizational values. Let’s discuss Schein’s concept of culture, how to use his tips in an external environment, and more.

Three Factors in the Edgar Schein Organizational Culture Triangle

One of the most famous models created by Edgar Schein is the Organizational Culture Triangle. This description first appeared in 1985 in Edgar Schein’s “Issues in Understanding and Changing Culture” and has since continued to make an impact. There are three significant sections, each noting his understanding that culture is complex.


The first section of the pyramid is artifacts. These are the most visible areas of culture and often the first things someone would notice and make basic assumptions about. Edgar H. Schein stated that artifacts include items in physical spaces like symbols, dress codes, observable behaviors, and more. Anything observable falls into the top portion of the pyramid.

With artifacts, there is a clear visual representation of the organizational dynamics of the culture. For example, open offices with workspaces where people interact more show a cultural element that values teamwork. Even something as small as a casual dress code can reveal specific values.

Ultimately, artifacts can be a window to something deeper within the dynamics of organizations and their culture. It reveals what is valued and provides a deeper understanding of culture within a workspace.

Man Sitting on  Stage Talking into a Microphone

Espoused Values

The next and second-largest section on the Culture Triangle is espoused values. This section is essentially the ingrained beliefs and cultural norms that are promoted and exist within an organizational culture. These become evident through value statements, mission statements, and more.

Also, those in charge tend to push forward the values in their organizational culture. Of course, there can also be a gap between the values stated and what happens. A business might have a core identity to promote the best possible customer interactions and yet leadership fosters cultural values that lead to the opposite amongst individuals.

Underlying Assumptions

The final section in the pyramid is the espoused values. These areas of organizational culture are often not said aloud, creating assumptions that create the core of most beliefs within a structure. They are typically shared by most people at a company and grow through interactions, observations, and various experiences.

There are many ways underlying assumptions can play out in a workplace. One example is the assumptions of how advancement works. For example, there could be an established atmosphere of competition – employees tend to know they must compete with their ideas to succeed rather than collaborating, left unsaid rather than verbalized by leadership. It can be healthy and unhealthy. 

How Do You Use the Schein Model in Practice?

We’ve talked about the Edgar Schein organizational culture model in the pyramid, but how do you practically use this model in your business? Luckily, Schein’s hard work isn’t just informative – it’s also helpful in determining everything from the visible elements to underlying beliefs. Let’s jump into seven practical ways to put this model into work for a positive work environment. 

Examining/Diagnosing Company Culture

The first thing you can do to use the Schein model is to examine and diagnose the culture. The triangle provides an essential framework for leadership and culture programs to check the culture of their business from the surface level to much deeper items. The cultural dynamics can then be shaped and shifted from there.

A culture consultant can also assist with this process, looking at everything from the office furniture to hidden assumptions to help you achieve your strategic objectives. Leaders and consultants should examine all three levels to find weak spots and strengths to form a targeted approach courtesy of the organizational development pioneer.

Creating a Strategy for Cultural Alignment

Another use for the Culture Triangle is to form a strategy that will create an effective cultural alignment. With the triangle, it will be much easier to create a cultural diagnosis to form a strategy for better cultural alignment. With cultural alignment, it will be far easier to accomplish goals and a much happier workspace for everyone involved.

Every single layer of the culture triangle matters when looking at a complete cultural assessment. It will allow those in charge to locate contradictions, gaps, and more to form a plan that will lead to the wanted values and outcomes in the years to come.

Development of Leaders

The next benefit of the triangle is that it allows more cultural awareness to develop the leaders and make even more of a social impact. The focus sits on cultural awareness and competency in a business, which then is used to impact the professional culture of those in higher positions. A weak culture often stems from weak leadership. 

Once a leader is familiar with the levels of culture in their business and understands the basic assumptions at the root of their business, they are far better able to know the organizational dynamics that sit at the root of their organizational culture. From there, they can make various decisions and behavior choices to benefit team dynamics and incorporate values as crucial role leaders.

Man and Woman Talking at a Table with a Laptop and Coffees

Transformation and Change of Culture

Next, the triangle can also push towards a transformation and a change in the culture in practice in a business. If you want a shift in the impact of company culture, Schein’s triangle is one of the best ways to access insights into culture. The triangle permits leaders to know why culture matters through all three points.

Elevated cultural sensitivity means deeper, effective change. A shift in organization dynamics requires an understanding like that which is apparent in Edgar Schein’s insights.

Acquiring Talent and Keeping Them

Next, you can use the triangle to bring in new talent and keep them on your team with an improvement in everything from cultural assumptions to the various appearances of employees in organization positions. Knowing organizational behavior through the three tiers is an effective business strategy for the long term and a push-off point in an early stage of development. 

If you know what makes up your physical environment and deeper assumptions, it will be simpler to narrow down individuals that will work well in your culture model. Once you know the cultural contexts, you can fill vital roles and establish routines and tactics to keep them on your team longer. Organizational contexts vastly improve for employees with an understanding of the triangle. 

Creating Organizational Communication

Next, Schein’s triangle can create the foundation for effective organizational communication. Communicating well is essential for creating and keeping an effective culture in a workplace, the triangle will help you ensure the way you communicate matches up with espoused values, artifacts, and underlying assumptions.

Ideally, in a business, the communication between various people in a professional endeavor will create transparency in the operations of the company, create trust amongst those who work in a particular location, and determine the expectations within the culture that exists. It will help everything stay afloat. 

Forming Knowledge Management/Organizational Learning

Finally, Schein’s triangle is effective in assisting with the formation of knowledge management and the upkeep of organizational learning. Most of this centers around the underlying assumptions, which are the core of how a business system functions.

With an understanding of the triangle, a business can form a culture of learning. This process can come to life through questioning assumptions, reading a cultural attribute of growth, and a comfortable and open dialogue through employees in all positions in a business. It offers encouragement towards effective growth.

What is the Essence of Culture According to Edgar Schein?

We’ve talked about Edgar Schein’s organizational culture and some of the items he noted that were vital in a professional structure. Schein defined culture as essentially everything a business learns through the history of its existence. He included factors like history, goals, strategy, practical implementation, recovery, and more as items that will influence the culture of a machine.

The longer a company is around, the more the culture will develop, and the deeper engrained assumptions will go. These will then form the core that the rest of the company grows and builds around until a culture consultant comes in and assists with change. 

What About Using Schein’s Model in Reverse?

Typically, a business would use the Schein model by working from the bottom up, addressing the underlying assumptions first and ending with the artifacts. However, it’s also possible to work from the top of the pyramid down to the bottom. By addressing the appearance first, the idea is that specific values will grow and trickle down to impact any underlying assumptions. 

Using this system in reverse is excellent for companies that want to provide a slightly slower implementation of change within the culture. For example, adopting a casual dress code could impact the deeper assumptions about the company culture. Of course, taking the reverse system might not work for every company structure. Taking this stance requires analysis.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the model of organizational culture?

Whenever you hear about an organization’s culture, it’s typically referring to the Edgar Schein organizational culture. It reveals the three structures of the system that lead to a far better understanding of a business. There are other ways to examine your company culture, but the model is the most well-known in the business world.

Why is the Schein model of organization important?

The Schein model of organization is critical because it provides significant insight into the structure of your business and opens a way to examine various strengths and weaknesses of your business. It will lead to a smooth transition experience and provide a simple pathway to success in any shifts in your culture along the way.

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