Common Perceptions or Divergent Misconceptions? What a CEO needs to evaluate about his company.

I want to chat about something which I think is quite simple, but can be made to sound very complicated. Organisational Culture sounds like an abstract subject difficult to get your mind round, but it need not be.

Edgar Schein is the Professor of Management at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and is considered one of the founders of organisational psychology. He states that “the culture of a group can now be defined as: A pattern of shared basic assumptions that the group learned 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.”

When considering this definition in relation to companies, I like it for the most part; it implies that organizational culture stems from lessons learnt from solving problems that can be both internal and external; it implies that these lessons can become cohesive and solid enough to train and teach new entrants to a group. All this I agree with.

Where I think that Schein’s definition needs more explanation, certainly when related to companies is where he talks about a “pattern of shared assumptions”.

You see in my experience very often companies do not have this pattern of shared assumptions. In many cases different corporate elements (sometimes based on function, sometimes on geography or seniority), have wildly different perceptions.

Let me give you some examples from some recent surveys I have conducted:

  • In Company A, Senior Management saw a real strength in seeking input as part of the decision making process; almost no-one else in the company agreed.
  • In Company B, Office based staff thought their company had real strength in having speedy recovery programs to resolve problems; the staff of their subsidiary in China disagreed even more strongly!

So you have to be very careful about assuming that there is a “pattern of shared assumptions” in your company. Often the pattern is indistinct and sometimes contradictory!!

So how would I simplify this cultural jigsaw?

As a start, wouldn’t it be useful to try to establish which perceptions are shared and which are not. Just to understand that small but important fact will begin the process of identifying issues and then seeking to resolve them.

Objectively measuring perceptions in a company is easy enough; but in some companies there are those “who know best”.

I guess sometimes those people might, but if I was the CEO, I would still want to evaluate it myself!


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