Critical Elements of Shared Culture

Several critical elements to the concept of a shared culture are structural stability, breadth, and patterning or integration

i) structural stability (once a group has a sense of group identity, it is the major stabilising force that is not easily changed or given up, ie

"...culture is hard to change because group members value stability in that it provides meaning and predictability.........culture is a set of learned solutions that produce success, comfort, and identity, but they may try to change the very things they value and need..."

Edgar Schein, 2004

ii) depth

"...culture is the deepest, often unconscious part of a group and is, therefore, less tangible and less visible than other parts......when something is more deeply embedded it also gains stability..."

Edgar Schein, 2004

iii) breadth (once culture has developed, it covers all the group's functions)

"...culture is pervasive; it influences all the aspects of how one organisation deals with its primary task, its various environments and its internal operations..."

Edgar Schein, 2004

iv) patterning or integration

"...culture somehow implies that rituals, climate, values, and behaviours are tied together into a coherent whole; this patterning or integration is the essence of what we mean by culture. Such patterning or integration ultimately derives from the human need to make an environment as sensible and orderly as we reduce the anxiety by developing a more consistent and predictable view of how things are and how they should be..."

Edgar Schein, 2004

In summary

"...organisational cultures, like other cultures, develop as a group of people struggle to make sense of and cope with their worlds..."

Edgar Schein, 2004

Remember: continual reinforcement elements of the culture, such as beliefs, values, etc become less obvious to the group and evolve into being non-negotiable elements; they gradually go out of awareness and come to be taken for granted as part of the identity of the group (they become assumptions that are non-negotiable).

Definition of group culture is

"...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 these problems..."

Edgar Schein, 2004

As claimed by Loizos Heracleous et al (2006), play is an important way to develop shared language, identity and social practices. Furthermore, play can provide a safe environment for introducing new ideas about market opportunities, generating debate about important strategic issues, challenging widely-held assumptions and building a sense of common purpose.

There are 3 levels at which culture can express itself: artefacts, espoused beliefs and values, and underlying assumptions (see Volume 3 for a technique that expands on this).

v) artefacts include the visible organisational structures and processes;

vi) espoused beliefs and values include strategies, goals and philosophies (espoused justifications) which are expressed in various plans (strategic, corporate, business, etc);

vii) underlying assumptions include unconscious, taken-for-granted beliefs, perceptions, thoughts and feelings (ultimate source of values and action). The basic underlying assumptions (theories-in-use) are the most important and can be the hardest to understand, ie

"...the implicit assumptions that actually guide behaviour, that tell group members how to perceive, think about, and feel about things. Basic assumptions......tend to be non-confrontable and non-debatable, and hence are extremely difficult to change. To learn something new in this realm requires us to resurrect, re-examine and possibly change some of the more stable portions of our cognitive structure......such learning is intrinsically difficult because the re-examination of basic assumptions temporarily destabilises our cognitive and interpersonal world, releasing large quantities of basic anxiety..."

Edgar Schein, 2004


" is in the psychological process that culture has its ultimate power. Culture as a set of basic assumptions defines for us what to pay attention to, what things mean, how to react emotionally to what is going on, and what actions to take in various kinds of situations. Once we have developed an integrated set of such assumptions - a thought world or mental map - we will be maximally comfortable with others who share the same set of assumptions and very uncomfortable and vulnerable in situations where different assumptions operate, because either we will not understand what is going on, or, worse, we will misperceive and misinterpret the actions of others......we can also think of culture at this level as the group's DNA, so if new learning or growth is required, the genes have to be there to make such growth possible and the autoimmune system has to be neutralised to sustain the growth. In any case, the two keys to successful cultural change are (1) the management of the large amounts of anxiety that accompany any relearning at this level and (2) the assessment of whether the genetic potential for the new learning is even present..."

Edgar Schein, 2004

Some other elements of culture that need to be addressed include defining

- a common language for communications and common conceptual categories that permit interpretation of what is going on (remember: people cannot tolerate too much uncertainty or stimulus overload)

- group boundaries and identity (What are the criteria for deciding who is in and who is out, ie inclusion and exclusion from the group? How is position and identity within the group determined?)

- power and status (how are influence, power and authority allocated?)

- allocation of rewards and punishment (what is the system of sanctions for obeying or disobeying group norms and rules, etc?)

- how unmanageable events are handled and explaining the inexplicable events (how is the organisation's history - written or oral - used to handle unpredictable and uncontrollable events that will impact on the group's survival?)

- internal integration and external adaptation (what are the external environmental limitations on the group? How does the group handle these external environmental limitations?)

NB Underlying all these elements is leadership (what role does leadership play in determining how the group handles things, such as determining the norms, rules, languages, reward systems, etc and unexpected events?)



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