If the study of culture has a predominant guru, it would be Edgar H Schein, Professor Emeritus at MIT. Schein, who has studied the elements of culture for over half a century has a simple there-layer model for understanding corporate culture (Schein, 2009). The three levels are:
ü Artifacts. These are made up of visible structures, processes and behavior. Easy to observe, artifacts are the outermost layer.
ü Espoused values. These are the strategies and philosophies at play. They include what people focus on and ‘how things get done around here’.
ü Underlying assumptions. These are the unconscious beliefs and perceptions rooted in the history of the business. This innermost layer is built through collective experiences including past successes and failures.
Corporate culture is as powerful as it is multifaceted. The best way to understand it is to experience it first-hand. Be immersed in both the explicit behavior and implicit beliefs. And it is through culture that each organization gives meaning to leadership.
Typically any new employee goes through a five-stage assimilation process:
ü Subscription. All employment relations start here. I need to make a commitment and turn up. I would typically be feeling excited; my adrenaline would be pumping, but my enthusiasm is laced with a shade of trepidation.
ü Discover. I go through my first few weeks of learning on overdrive. Each day seems like a breakthrough. I gather my first experiences and clarify my assumptions. I am starting to discover the culture of this new workplace. I also meet lots of new people and go through strong emotions such as validation, inclusion, insight and even some disappointment.
ü Understand. In a few months, I get into a familiar rhythm. I set some personal rules and start to codify how I can be successful here. The rule-book is now clear and I am able to interpret this organization’s culture through every experience. I start forming an early coalition outside my direct team and I am feeling more confident.
ü Create equity. I am now ready to put my own ideas and strategy into play. There is so much we can improve here. My first successes give me energy to take bigger risks. By now I have built strong alliances through the firm by finding people I can rely on and call upon for advice. My energy levels are high, as are my hopes for success.
ü Distribute equity. By now, I see the bigger picture and discover new opportunities to contribute, even if indirectly. I know my thoughts and contribution are valued and I feel less insecure about my personal success. I have gathered a sense of wisdom about how to be successful here and am willing to share this with others.
Almost everyone goes through a similar cycle. In some places it could take months, in others several years to arrive at stage five. A lot of factors matter including how new employees are managed, their ability to develop the right skills at the right time and the coaching they receive. But most of all, they need enabling culture that is oriented towards employee’s empowerment and success.
A lot can go wrong during the five stages. Let’s say the culture can’t sustain new ideas, or a direct manager does not support equity development. Then the curve as in the picture could flatten prematurely while the employee still feels dependent. Without a chance to feel interdependent and secure, in a while the employee may choose to physically quit and leave. Even more tragically the person might mentally quit and stay.