Onion Model

Organizational culture is a shared set of beliefs or core values established by the leaders of the organization and then carried forward through the company’s ethos, branding, resources, and employee behavior. Most business leaders and managers are aware of the impact of positive work culture on employee motivation and productivity. However, industry leaders and decision-makers often don’t understand the underlying complexities of a high-performing culture and why change is so difficult for people to accept.

Edgar Schein’s three levels of organizational culture, which are also referred to as the Onion Model, can help CEOs and recruiters in developing a deeper understanding of organizational effectiveness. It reinforces the idea of shared beliefs via different methods that collectively give shape to the employee’s perceptions and actions. Therefore, if a company wants to improve its culture, it may prove pertinent to peel off and examine several layers of infrastructure – similar to an onion.

The Three Levels of Organizational Culture

Culture in its true sense can often be an arbitrary concept that isn’t immediately observable and, therefore, can be Staffing Agency difficult to articulate. In 1980, Schein developed an organizational structure model that made culture visible and easier to leverage within any company. The three distinctly illuminated levels of culture that he discussed are:

  • Artifacts and Symbols
  • Espoused Values
  • Shared Tacit Assumptions

The concept is still relevant today and makes it evident that, for example, changing a toxic work environment for the better cannot happen if the change doesn’t seep through and touches the inner-most layers of the enterprise’s culture. Moreover, a business cannot become a values-based organization if its culture isn’t supported by the right workforce strategy and organizational structure.

While organizational culture sets the tone and context for virtually everything that a company does, industries and situations can still vary based on certain variables specific to each situation. Unlike centralized recruitment, there isn’t a one-shoe-fits-all template for every company culture to emulate. The outer layers are the easiest to tackle but the deeper one goes, the harder it can be to adapt.

Artifacts and Symbols

The outer-most layer of organizational culture is the very visible, tangible, and apparent manifestations that a person can see as soon as they enter an organization. An outside observer might not have enough company insight to accurately decipher all of the artifacts. However, a lot can still be easy to observe. All the visible elements such as the company logo, its products, the building infrastructure and its alignment with workplace safety protocols, and even the corporate dress code. Artifacts make up the visible surface of the organization and are the easiest to alter in accordance with certain workplace/work culture goals.

Espoused Values

The rules of conduct, values, objectives, and everything that the organization says about itself makes up the second level of its culture. In their book, The Heart of Change (2002), Kotter & Cohen assert that a significant change among decision-makers inside a company could potentially mean that one culture goes out the door while another comes in. So, the adopted rules can change with every CEO, leader, or decision-maker that joins the culture stream of the enterprise. These values could often be currently unstated assumptions, a part of the overall business philosophy, or simply future aspirations (business vision or mission).

However, where leaders and managers have successfully nurtured a strong company culture, the workforce usually understands what they are expected to do, what response is proper, and how the company will reward them for upholding the organization’s core values. In other words, the workforce is able to “buy in” as far as values and goals are concerned. Therefore, to lead an organization through positive change, leaders must change their own modalities, language, and attitude.

Shared Tacit Assumptions

The unspoken, taken-for-granted, or unconscious, deeply-embedded beliefs of an organization make up the inner-most layer of any enterprise’s culture. This layer is so deep that most assumptions are difficult to extract, even from within the organization. In fact, the self-evident behavior of business leaders or the employees working inside the organization is usually the only source that indicates them.

However, problems become apparent when these assumptions don’t align with the artifacts and the espoused values of the organization, i.e., the first two layers of the onion. This usually contributes to making change a lot more difficult. They have learned behavior that has gained shape and form over time due to both personal and organizational experiences. Many tacit assumptions often stem from an employee’s perceptions as well. This adds further complexity when organizations wish to make significant changes to their existing culture and processes.

How Can Organizations Use Schein’s Onion Model?

Businesses can try to start by accessing their current cultural state because it can help to identify any discrepancies between core values and the actual organizational culture. In an attempt to keep historical organizational culture alive, many companies have often appropriated age-old problematic behavior. However, to bring about positive change to a culture that can influence employee growth and productivity, some policies will almost always require to be revisited or even completely scrapped.

According to Jesper B. Sorensen, existing organizational processes can become obsolete with change. The leaders may have to experiment with new approaches where the existing ones are obviously leaving much to be desired. These can include approaches such as outsourcing hiring to a staffing agency, revising the dress code, or considering a more linear hierarchy, depending upon the problem. Minor changes to artifacts are usually far easier to maintain. But starting at the core (values and assumptions) might bring about a more sustainable and meaningful change in cultural disposition.

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