Organizational culture and leadership: a book review

I finally got around to reading the latest edition of Organizational Culture and Leadership by Edgar Schein which had been lying on my office desk for ages. And as often with my reading choices, they are not at all the result of pure chance but always seem to find a way to connect to recent readings or experiences I’ve had.

Organizational culture was no exception: it refers at length to Otto Scharmer’s Theory U which I received as a Christmas present, to Peter Senge, whose books I loved, and to what a learning organization and a participatory culture should look like, which was the topic of my participatory leadership training (link) last month and also fits well with my work on digital transformation in a public service context. Here’s a 9-page summary and a  mind map of the book’s key arguments and findings if you’re saying goodbye at this point.

Do stick around if you want to know what a learning culture and a learning leader look like.

Leadership is about shaping, embedding and transforming organizational culture

Schein’s main argument and book structure is well summed up in the introduction:

“leaders as entrepreneurs are the main architects of culture, that cultures influence what kind of leadership is possible, and that if cultural elements become dysfunctional, leadership can and must do something to speed up cultural change” (p. 17)

I really like his extremely clear writing style, he doesn’t get lost in arguments and always sums up key points with diagrams or bullet lists. The arguments are always followed by examples and case studies, as he believes one can only study culture in a context and not in a vacuum.

If I was in a leadership position in an organisation and faced with the need for transformational change, I would remember these 5 lessons from the book:

  • Culture is about making sense of the complexity of human relationships by creating stable rules that increase psychological safety and predictability of human activities.
  • Leadership is about helping the organisation make sense in its external environment AND building internal integration.
  • Key issues of identity, authority and intimacy is what leaders need to pay attention to as they try to shape, embed or change organizational culture.
  • Leaders need to look at processes rather than content when faced with the need for transformational change; consistency in their behavior is what creates strong inclusive cultures.
  • As our world becomes more complex, uncertain and interconnected, leaders will need to become learning leaders and embed a culture of learning inside their organisation. 

One of the key methodological lessons that Schein draws from his over 50 years of practice of clinical research into the topic of culture and leadership is that cultural change per se is never a good idea and never effective.

It is only by framing a problem in terms of performance or business objectives that one can identify whether cultural change is necessary or not in the process of adapting the organisation to the new challenge. More often than not Schein actually notices that true cultural change didn’t need to happen.

Transforming leaders into learners and cultures into learning cultures

I really had an ‘aha’ moment in the book when I read his explanation, largely inspired by Lewin’s Model of Change developed in the late 1940s, of how people learn.

Here’s the process, roughly summarized:

  • Disconfirming information is received that states that you are not doing things right, things that may put your organisation or its business at risk. The survival anxiety grows, but as long as this survival anxiety is not as vivid as the learning anxiety which is a natural component of our human psyche, nothing happens. It is only when <strong>survival anxiety &gt; learning anxiety that one can really start to learn and to change one’s deeper assumptions about how things should be done or how one should react to other humans. This stage is the one Lewin calls “unfreezing”.
  • Learning happens. It can take mainly two forms:
  • one can learn by imitation, through role models, but it’s not a very sustainable way of learning (if the role model leaves for example); or
  • one can learn by trial-and-error, but inventing solutions that fit into the broader goal to be achieved – this method ensures more lasting change in behaviours.   
  • Refreezing happens when people have internalized the new concepts, meanings or standards they have acquired during the learning. Schein warns that this is only possible though if the what has been learnt is also proving successful over time, otherwise people will result to prior behaviours.

The fact that learning happens in a more sustainable way when you do experiential learning is important. It means no matter how well you show others what to do as a leader, it will not stick or work until people actually find THEIR way of dealing with the problem. Leadership therefore is not about being a role model anymore, it’s about facilitating/coaching that learning and change process in others.

As a leader you will still need to be a role model though, because people will expect you to be consistent in your behaviour with your stated vision or objectives. So leadership has just become even more complex, but also much more rewarding!

I really like Schein’s conclusion on what a learning culture and a learning leader looks like. Imagine this is a check list – how many boxes is your organisation ticking? How many boxes are you as a leader or aspiring leader ticking?

Learning culture check list:

  • Proactivity: active problem-solving leads to learning
  • Commitment to learning to learn. “A learning culture must therefore value reflection and experimentation” (p. 367)
  • Positive assumptions about human nature. Humans are basically good. “A cynical attitude toward human nature is bound to create, at best, bureaucratic rigidity, and at the worst time, counter-organizational subgroups.” (p. 367)
  • Belief that the environment can be managed
  • Commitment to full and open task-relevant communication. “Communication and information are central to the organizational wellbeing and must therefore create a multichannel communication system that allows everyone to connect to everyone else.” (p. 369)
  • Interpersonal openness must be combined with task-relevant information (otherwise information overload). 
  • Commitment to systemic thinking “The learning leader must believe that the world is intrinsically complex, non-linear, interconnected, and ‘over-determined’ in the sense that most things are multiply caused.” (p. 371)
  • Perception and insight to see their own weaknesses, having an international exposure and a diverse career helps.
  • Motivation to unfreeze their own organization and know where their loyalty lies.
  • Emotional strength to provide psychological safety in transformational change moments.
  • Ability to change cultural assumptions by articulating and selling new values and concepts.
  • Ability to create involvement and participation in a genuine way, to listen.

This book has not only proven helpful for putting many of the ideas and theories around organizational culture and leadership into a broader context, it also provides me with a roadmap of how to launch transformational change and how to ensure its long-term success.

Can’t wait to use the checklists in my own life and in different contexts – for work and for fun!

See also:

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