Section 5: Organizational Culture

Discuss the definition and levels of organizational culture

Photograph of a person setting tables in a large room with no other people.You’re likely pretty familiar with the word culture. Perhaps you’ve studied a foreign language, and learned about the culture of its native speakers. Or perhaps you’ve heard individuals talk about other people as cultured (or uncultured!). Any group has a unique culture based on its individuals and surroundings.

An organization’s culture can be influenced by various factors, but before we dive into the influences, let’s take a moment to define and understand what organizational culture is. Organizational culture incorporates beliefs, values, and priorities that contribute to an organization’s environment. Organizational culture is a complex concept to fully dissect and differs from one organization to the next.

Learning Outcomes

  • Discuss organizational culture
  • Describe the levels of organizational culture

What is Organizational Culture?

Before we can explore the factors that influence organizational culture, we must first understand and define organizational culture. Take a moment to consider your thoughts on organizational culture. Is organizational behavior and organizational culture the same thing?

Organizational culture sets the tone for an organization. It depicts acceptable behaviors and defines the appropriate way to act. Culture is formed by an organization’s values and beliefs which are infused throughout the organization from upper management through entry-level employees. Culture sets the stage for everything an organization does and helps to outline their operational procedures. Since there is such a wide variety of industries and organizations, there is no exact right or wrong type of culture to have. Organizational cultures will differ from business to business just as the organizational culture within family units can be dramatically different from one family to the next.

So if there is no perfect, one-size-fits-all culture for an organization, how does organizational culture impact a company’s success? In order to dissect this, we first need to discuss the varying degrees of company culture. While every organization has a culture all their own, some cultures are stronger or weaker than others. A company with a stronger culture, centered around their values and mission, tend to be more successful than companies with a lackluster approach to their values and goals. It is not enough to simply establish a mission, values and goals; instead, these components must be integrated into every daily process and ingrained within every member of the organization.

Practice Question

Imagine a sports team where each player is focus on their own preferred way of doing things. If everyone on the team is operating differently, will they be successful in a game? Most likely not. If each player is focused on their own objective as opposed to the mission of the team, it is evidence of a weak culture. To help strengthen the culture, the coach needs to bring the team together and realign everyone to the team’s mission. While there will still be players responsible for different roles, by communicating a game plan and guiding the team along the way, the coach has the opportunity to strengthen the culture and overall success of the team. But it doesn’t end there. Culture is not something that can quickly be changed. It requires constant follow-up and follow-through in order to both change and maintain culture. Organizational culture needs to be nurtured and valued throughout an organization in order to establish a strong and healthy culture.

Before we explore external factors that influence organizational culture, it is important to mention that a strong culture can be a bad thing for an organization if it is built on a corrupt foundation. Just as positive values and goals should be infused in an organization, bad habits and condoned bad behavior can permeate into the culture of an organization. If not handled in a quickly and timely manner, unethical or corrupt practices may become part of an organization’s culture.

Organizational culture incorporates how a company operates on every level. In order to truly understand an organization’s culture, you must be able to dissect each component. The first step to a deeper understanding of organizational culture is to define and understand external and internal factors that influence organizational behavior. Let’s get started by exploring external factors and the role they play in establishing culture.

Levels of Organizational Culture

Edgar Schein presented three levels of organization in his 1991 article “What is Culture?” He grouped organizational culture into three levels including artifacts, values, and underlying assumptions. Watch the video below to learn more about Schein and his interpretation of organizational culture.

To recap, Schein created three levels of organizational culture. First, at the top of the pyramid are artifacts. While they have been defined as the visible part of an iceberg, they are hard to decipher. Artifacts include organizational structures and processes that are apparent and visible. Right below the top of the iceberg, in the middle of his cultural pyramid is the values level. Values include the “why” behind why a company operates the way they do. It includes company goals, strategies and philosophies that drive a company’s mission. Finally, the level that is the hardest to understand is the bottom of the pyramid which Schein labels “underlying assumptions.” These underlying assumptions create the foundation for the values and artifacts levels. They take time and energy to fully decipher and understand and include thoughts, beliefs and perceptions that establish culture (Organizational Communication Channel, 2017).

In 2019, Granter used Schein’s pyramid idea and added a level above the artifacts level. Here is a breakdown of his interpretation of the organizational culture pyramids:

Table 1. Levels of organizational culture (Source: Granter, 2019)
Levels of Organizational Culture Manifested through
1. Superstructural/ideological Acceptance of dominant national economic regimes. Reactions to social and economic change.
2. Symbolic (Artifacts) Corporate logos, uniforms, rituals, stories, events, “heroes,” posters, buildings, layout, purported organizational structure.
3. Discursive (Values) Buzzwords and phrases, renaming roles/unites, “culture change,” values and culture explicitly espoused by the organization, technical or professional norms and rules. Rules imposed by the organization.
4. Affective and cognitive (Underlying assumptions) Workers’ sense of identity, attitudes towards and feelings about the manifestations of levels 1–3, trust in organizations’ espoused versions of 2–3, understanding of the “reality” of working in the organization. Tacit knowledge of how things work.

As you can see, Granter argues there is an even broader version of culture than that of artifacts. According to Granter, the super-structural level takes into account social and economic change and the influence they have on the entire organizational cultural pyramid. Both Schein and Granter present a new level of complexity to organizational culture and help to explain its intricacies and innerworkings.

Practice Question


Granter, E. (2019). Managing Culture at Work. Manuscript submitted for publication.

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  • Defining Organizational Culture. Authored by: Freedom Learning Group. Provided by: Lumen Learning. License: CC BY: Attribution
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  • What is Organizational Culture?. Authored by: Denison Consulting. Located at: License: All Rights Reserved. License Terms: Standard YouTube License
  • Organizational Culture Edgar Schein. Authored by: Organizational Communication Channel. Located at: License: All Rights Reserved. License Terms: Standard YouTube License


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5.2 Defining Organizational Culture Copyright © 2019 by Graduate Studies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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