Overcoming Your History- Part II

Last week we began this conversation about why some organizations find it next to impossible to affect real cultural change even when faced with the clear signs of decline or with a crisis that threatens to undermine or destabilize them.  I believe that a primary skill all growing and healthy organizations must acquire is the ability to overcome their own history.  Overcoming your history could be defined as the ability to critique and honor your history simultaneously.  Most organizations are all about the honor part but it is the ability to critique one’s own history that allows the freedom to create a new future.

I am using the work of Edgar H. Schein to highlight the three levels of organization culture that if not understood and addressed will prevent an organization from realizing the kind of changes that allow it to overcome its history and create a new future.   Schein’s three levels of organizational culture from the least visible level to the most visible they are:  1) underlying assumptions, beliefs, perceptions and feelings, 2) values expressed in terms of strategies, goals and philosophies, and 3) structures and processes. This week we will discuss level two.

Level two contains the values that have been constructed to maintain the underlying assumptions of the organization.  These values are often attributed to the previous leader or to the founder of the organization and they reflect the institution’s strategies, goals, and philosophies that are the source of the culture’s shared assumptions.  Originally these values are productive, successful and provided the organization with a sense of stability and security.  The organization comes to depend on these values in times of crisis and instability; however, if over time they begin to prove inadequate or inappropriate for managing crisis the organization can be faced with a high level of anxiety caused by the growing discrepancy between its underlying assumptions and the failure of its values.  Rather than questioning its assumptions and assessing its values, some institutions resort to distorting, denying, projecting or falsifying the data as a defense mechanism against the possibility that its shared assumptions and values are no longer accurate or adequate.  Even if those in the organization know that the values have become mere words used to market the organization to its external constituents, the very idea of challenging either the assumptions or the values is taboo.  The point where this dysfunctional response of denial has the most immediate and visible effect is at level three, the structures and the processes of the organization. 

So if your wondering what it looks like to work in one of these organizations,  tune in next week for Part III.

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