Underlying Assumptions and Organizational Change

Underlying Assumptions and Organizational Change

By Dr. Pressley Rankin IV

Factors that Determine a Company’s Culture

In the seminal book, “Organizational Culture and Leadership,” Edgar Schein describes organizational culture on three levels: artifacts, espoused beliefs and values, and underlying assumptions (Schein, 2004). Artifacts are visible products of a group or culture, such as organizational structures, processes, language, environment, or technology use.  Espoused beliefs and values are officially introduced in a company’s mission, vision, and values statements. Beliefs and values can be unofficially revealed by employees who are keepers of a company’s culture.

For example, it may be widely known that the president of an organization prefers employees to make appointments instead of having a conversation in the halls. While it may be problematic to interpret specific meaning, artifacts, espoused beliefs and values in an organization are easily seen or heard.

Underlying Assumptions Can Impede Change

Underlying assumptions are the source of values in a culture and what causes actions within the organization.  Organizational assumptions are usually “known,” but are not discussed, nor are they written or easily found.  They are comprised of unconscious thoughts, beliefs, perceptions, and feelings (Schein, 2004). Since assumptions are not discussed or dealt with openly, assumptions cannot easily be addressed or changed. As a result, organizational problems may arise, signifying that change is needed.

Encourage Deep Reflection to Avoid Drama

What can be done if underlying assumptions impede organizational change? One technique from the field of counseling is to ask a probing question at least three times to trigger deeper reflection. Here are sample questions:

Round 1: Why do you believe/think that? Or, why is this a problem?

Round 2: Why do you believe/think that is the case? Or, that is a problem, but why is it a problem?

Round 3: It seems you believe/think [whatever you have discussed]; have you thought about why you think those things? Or, what do you think is the belief or idea that is the root of this is problem?

By drilling down and asking why, a person may be encouraged to think more deeply about the underlying assumptions that guides their thoughts, and through the interview process, the basis of those assumptions can be addressed along with the anxiety people may feel. Change may threaten unconscious belief systems. Addressing underlying assumptions at their core can allow organizational change to take place without excessive drama.

For more information about organizational change and leadership, visit our blog: http://www.cityu.edu/blog/category/school-of-applied-leadership

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