When I talk to product teams and company leaders after a teambuilding event, one challenge that comes up more than anything else is the mindset of the company. Even in the 21st century, many people feel that their companies are too top-down, sales-driven, output-focused, and traditional. This is a far-reaching problem that affects not only old businesses looking to transform, but also Silicon Valley mega-companies, unicorn scale-ups, and even startups.
The problem is that this mindset dictates behavior and perpetuates the current ways of working, inhibiting change. Modern approaches are either rejected as not applicable or subverted to match the company’s worldview. Agile Development is really just a way to boost engineering productivity; while Objectives and Key Results (OKR) are really just a method to enforce top-down decisions. They are just rigid processes that keep the status quo of your company culture.
One solution to this problem is to use Edgar Schein’s Company Culture Model to map out the core beliefs and assumptions that shape a company’s mindset. According to MIT Professor Edgar Schein, the surface-level structure and processes of an organization are determined by inner principles and philosophies, which in turn are affected by unspoken core beliefs and assumptions. By understanding these underlying beliefs, you can take steps to change the culture in a way that aligns with the organization’s goals and values.
The first step in mapping out employee mindset is to understand the three levels of culture: artifacts, espoused values, and basic assumptions.
Artifacts, such as posters, dress codes, job titles, and workspace design, are outward signs of a company’s culture, but only provide a limited understanding of the culture. Changing these artifacts may lead to some small changes in culture, but not significant ones. Additionally, the company offers free seminars as a way to share knowledge and engage with the community.
Exposed values refer to the ideals and principles that a company publicly states and promotes, such as organizational values and behaviors, charters, contracts, and mission and vision statements. Examining these values can give some understanding of the culture, but changes to them will only lead to limited changes within the organization. Even if a company values tenacity and displays it through artifacts, it does not necessarily mean that the employees embody that value in their actions.
The underlying beliefs held by employees within an organization include their internal assumptions about how they should interact with one another, as well as their beliefs about what actions will lead to success or failure in the workplace. For example, while a company may promote remote work as a positive aspect, employees may have a belief that physical presence in the office is necessary for recognition. These underlying beliefs provide the most accurate picture of a company’s culture and have the greatest potential for change, but they are also the most challenging to alter.
Here are some examples of core beliefs that shape the mindset.
- business-focus vs. customer-focus
- plan for certainty vs. uncertainty
- top-down management vs. empowerment
- the role of processes: predictability vs. adaptability
- the role of experimentation: feel-good vs. change
- the role of learning: compliance vs. curiosity
- assumption of trust or mistrust in employees
Changing the culture by altering the base assumption
By understanding these beliefs, you can take steps to change the culture in a way that aligns with your organization’s goals and values. For example, if you find that your company is too top-down and traditional, you may need to examine the basic assumptions that are driving that behavior. Is there a belief that the manager should always make the decisions? Is there a lack of trust in employees to make decisions? By identifying and changing these underlying assumptions, you can create a culture that is more empowering and adaptable.
Understanding the mindset of employees is critical in today’s business environment. By using Edgar Schein’s Company Culture Model, you can gain a deeper understanding of the underlying assumptions and values that shape employee mindset and take steps to change the culture in a way that aligns with your organization’s goals and values. This will help you to create a more innovative, adaptable, and agile organization that is better equipped to succeed in today’s fast-paced business environment.