Organizational Culture and Leadership, 4th edition
By Edgar H. Schein
One of the blind reviewers for my latest book (which will be published in March 2015) suggested I read this book. More recently, one of our professors in the HDO program assigned it to her students. With two recommendations so close together, I decided it was time to take the book for a spin.
What did I think of it? I'm still sorting that out.
According to the back cover, this book is "one of the most influential management books of all time." Its author has been studying and consulting on organizational culture for decades—his earliest cited work in this volume is dated 1961—and he draws on a deep well of his and others' organizational studies to discuss what organizational culture is and what leadership entails. Since the book is written for management rather than scholars, it is full of categories and heuristics aimed at helping that audience think through the various issues of culture.
Schein has clearly thought through the relevant issues, leading to fairly precise definitions. For instance, he defines "the culture of a group" as "a pattern of shared basic assumptions learned by a group as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, which 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" (p.18). He distinguishes organizational cultures from macrocultures (e.g., nations), subcultures (e.g., occupational groups), and microcultures (e.g., microsystems) (p.2). Within culture, leadership involves becoming influential in shaping the values and behaviors of others in the group (p.3). Culture, he says, implies structural stability, depth, breadth, and patterning or integration (pp.16-17). Critically, he says (over and over), culture cannot be inferred only from behavior: culture is driven by shared basic assumptions, which may not be accessible to outsiders through observations or even through initial interviews (p.20); they might not even be easily accessible to the participants themselves.
Schein argues that culture has three levels: artifacts (which include visible structures and processes as well as observed behavior); espoused beliefs and values (which includes ideals, ideologies, and rationalizations); and basic underlying assumptions (which are unconscious and taken-for-granted, but which determine bedrock things such as behavior and perception) (p.24). New values can be proposed (on the second level) but do not become part of the underlying assumptions until they have been "empirically tested" (p.26). These basic assumptions then become theories-in-use, which are nonconfrontable and nondebatable (p.28). In fact, when cultural assumptions conflict, new solutions have to keep each cultural assumption intact in order to be accepted (p.31).
In organizations, Schein says, three generic subcultures are in effect: the operator subculture (or "the front line"), the engineering/design subculture; and the executive subculture (Ch.4). These subcultures often work at cross purposes, and the lack of alignment causes many problems that are ascribed to issues such as bureaucracy, environment, or personality (p.65).
The culture's structure is the same at different levels, Schein says, but its content (rules, norms, values, assumptions) vary (p.69). Schein notes that some have attempted to address the issue of structure through organizational typologies (such as Cameron and Quinn's CVF), but he argues that such typologies pose several analytical problems—particularly when administered in survey form. To pick out two criticisms that apply to typologies in general rather than to survey methodology: (A) such typologies are typically based on a priori comparative dimensions, and there's no way to tell which dimensions will be most salient to the case until one actually gets into the case (p.160), and (B) the sample of employees may not be representative of the key culture carriers (p.160). Typologies may also imply, as CVF does, that the poles of each dimension are in conflict "and the cultural solution is how to reconcile them"; based on his deep experience in examining organizations, Schein is unconvinced, although he allows that the CVF may provide "a useful diagnostic" for correlating managerial climate and performance (p.168). In sum, Schein believes that such typologies "simplify thinking and provide useful categories for sorting out the complexities we must deal with when we confront organizational realities." But they tend to be oversimplified and their categories may be irrelevant or incorrect. The effort to classify the organization into a single category involves making a lot of assumptions, many of which may not hold (p.175).
In the next chapter, Chapter 11, Schein discusses categories of research on organizations. He uses a matrix: level of subject involvement (low, medium, and high) vs. level of researcher involvement (low/medium: quantitative; high: qualitative) (p.181). The rest of the chapter weighs these different approaches—in detail.
Skipping ahead, we get to Chapter 14. Here, Schein seems to say that leaders take an outsized role in setting culture. He discusses the mechanisms in detail; I'll just comment that I am as skeptical of this argument as Schein is about organizational typologies.
By Chapter 17, we get to "a conceptual model for managed culture change," and Chapter 18 builds on that discussion by proffering an approach to "culture assessment as part of managerial organized change." Extraordinarily, given the previous discussion, Schein claims that "culture can be assessed by means of various individual and group interview processes ... Such assessments can be usefully made by insiders in as little as a half-day" (p.326, my emphasis).
So, now that I've recapitulated the book's highlights, what do I think?
The book is indeed broad and deep, and the author's long and detailed experience gives him a broad number of examples as well as a strong set of conceptual tools to interpret them. I would have liked to see the book become more focused and parsimonious, though, especially in reusing several of the examples across chapters.
Some of the authors' critiques stick: For instance, the critique of typologies is well thought out and helped me to think through some of the issues in the typologies I've read and discussed on this blog (and in my upcoming article and book). But the author doesn't distinguish strongly between the theoretical issues of such typologies and the methodological issues of surveys. As noted above, I am also skeptical of the outsized role that the author assigns to leaders in the organization, as well as his assertion that insiders can assess culture in a half day—this assertion seems to cut against his earlier claims about deep assumptions in the culture.
At the same time, the book also talks through organizational culture using heuristics that could be potentially very useful. For instance, the distinction among levels of culture not only makes sense, it can be put in dialogue with other theoretical and methodological approaches to organizational culture.
So: should you read it? If you're interested in organizational culture, yes. But if you have already read books on organizational culture or qualitative research, you may find yourself skimming it in several chapters.