Basic Underlying Assumptions – the third levels of organizational culture

When a solution to a problem works repeatedly, it comes to be taken for granted. What was once a hypothesis, supported only by a hunch or a value, gradually comes to be treated as a reality. We come to believe that nature really works this way. Basic assumptions, in this sense, are different from what some anthropologists called “dominant value orientations” in that such dominant orientations reflect the preferred solution among several basic alternatives, but all the alternatives are still visible in the culture, and any given member of the culture could, from time to time, behave according to variant as well as dominant orientations (Kluckhohn and Strodtbeck, 1961).

Basic assumptions, in the sense defined here, have become so taken for granted that you find little variation within a social unit. This degree of consensus results from repeated success in implementing certain beliefs and values, as previously described. In fact, if a basic assumption comes to be strongly held in a group, members will find behavior based on any other premise inconceivable. For example, in a group whose basic assumption is that the individual ’s rights supersede those of the group, members find it inconceivable to commit suicide or in some other way sacrifice themselves to the group even if they had dishonored the group. In a capitalist country, it is inconceivable that someone might design a business organization to oper­ate consistently at a financial loss or that it does not matter whether or not a product works. In an occupation such as engineering, it is inconceivable to deliberately design something that is unsafe; it is a taken-for-granted assump­tion that things should be safe. Basic assumptions, in this sense, are similar to what Argyris and Schon identified as “theories-in-use”—the implicit assump­tions that actually guide behavior, that tell group members how to perceive, think about, and feel about things (Argyris and Schon, 1974, 1996).

Basic assumptions, like theories-in-use, tend to be nonconfrontable and nondebatable, and hence are extremely difficult to change. To learn some­thing new in this realm requires us to resurrect, reexamine, and possibly change some of the more stable portions of our cognitive structure—a pro­cess that Argyris and others have called “double-loop learning,” or “frame breaking” (Argyris, Putnam, and Smith, 1985; Bartunek, 1984). Such learn­ing is intrinsically difficult because the reexamination of basic assumptions temporarily destabilizes our cognitive and interpersonal world, releasing large quantities of basic anxiety.

Rather than tolerating such anxiety levels, we tend to want to perceive the events around us as congruent with our assumptions, even if that means distorting, denying, projecting, or in other ways falsifying to ourselves what may be going on around us. It is in this psychological process that culture has its ultimate power. Culture as a set of basic assumptions defines for us what to pay attention to, what things mean, how to react emotionally to what is going on, and what actions to take in various kinds of situa­tions. After we have developed an integrated set of such assumptions—a “thought world” or “mental map”—we will be maximally comfortable with others who share the same set of assumptions and very uncomfortable and vulnerable in situations where different assumptions operate because either we will not understand what is going on, or, worse, we will misperceive and misinterpret the actions of others (Douglas, 1986; Bushe, 2009).

The human mind needs cognitive stability. Therefore, any challenge or questioning of a basic assumption will release anxiety and defensive­ness. In this sense, the shared basic assumptions that make up the cul­ture of a group can be thought of both at the individual and group level as psychological cognitive defense mechanisms that permit the group to continue to function. At the same time, culture at this level provides its members with a basic sense of identity and defines the values that provide self-esteem (Hatch and Schultz, 2004). Cultures tell their members who they are, how to behave toward each other, and how to feel good about them­selves. Recognizing these critical functions makes us aware why “changing” culture is so anxiety provoking.

To illustrate how unconscious assumptions can distort data, consider the following example. If we assume, on the basis of past experience or education, that other people will take advantage of us whenever they have an opportunity, we expect to be taken advantage of, and we then interpret the behavior of others in a way that coincides with those expectations. We observe people sitting in a seemingly idle posture at their desk and interpret their behavior as “loafing” rather than “thinking out an important problem.” We perceive absence from work as “shirking” rather than “doing work at home.”

If this is not only a personal assumption but also one that is shared and thus part of the culture of an organization, we will discuss with others what to do about our “lazy” workforce and institute tight controls to ensure that people are at their desks and busy. If employees suggest that they do some of their work at home, we will be uncomfortable and probably deny the request because we will figure that at home they would loaf (Bailyn, 1992; Perin, 1991).

In contrast, if we assume that everyone is highly motivated and compe­tent, we will act in accordance with that assumption by encouraging people to work at their own pace and in their own way. If we see someone sitting quietly at their desk, we will assume that they are thinking or planning. If someone is discovered to be unproductive in such an organization, we will make the assumption that there is a mismatch between the person and the job assignment, not that the person is lazy or incompetent. If employees want to work at home, we will perceive that as evidence of their wanting to be productive.

In both cases, there is the potential for distortion, in that the cynical manager will not perceive how highly motivated some of the subordinates really are, and the idealistic manager will not perceive that there are subor­dinates who are lazy and are taking advantage of the situation. As McGregor noted many decades ago, such assumptions about “human nature” become the basis of management and control systems that perpetuate themselves because if people are treated consistently in terms of certain basic assump­tions, they come eventually to behave according to those assumptions to make their world stable and predictable (1960).

Unconscious assumptions sometimes lead to ridiculously tragic situa­tions, as illustrated by a common problem experienced by U.S. supervisors in some Asian countries. A manager who comes from a U.S. pragmatic tradition assumes and takes it for granted that solving a problem always has the highest priority. When that manager encounters a subordinate who comes from a cultural tradition in which good relationships and protecting the superior’s “face” are assumed to have top priority, the following scenario has often resulted.

The manager proposes a solution to a given problem. The subordinate knows that the solution will not work, but his unconscious assumption requires that he remain silent because to tell the boss that the proposed solution is wrong is a threat to the boss ’s face. It would not even occur to the subordinate to do anything other than remain silent or, if the boss were to inquire what the subordinate thought, to even reassure the boss to go ahead and take the action.

The action is taken, the results are negative, and the boss, somewhat sur­prised and puzzled, asks the subordinate what he would have done or would he have done something different. This question puts the subordinate into an impossible double bind because the answer itself is a threat to the boss’s face. He cannot possibly explain his behavior without committing the very sin he was trying to avoid in the first place—namely, embarrassing the boss. He may even lie at this point and argue that what the boss did was right and only “bad luck” or uncontrollable circumstances prevented it from succeeding.

From the point of view of the subordinate, the boss’s behavior is incom­prehensible because to ask the subordinate what he would have done shows lack of self-pride, possibly causing the subordinate to lose respect for that boss. To the boss, the subordinate ’s behavior is equally incomprehensible. He cannot develop any sensible explanation of his subordinate’s behavior that is not cynically colored by the assumption that the subordinate at some level just does not care about effective performance and therefore must be gotten rid of. It never occurs to the boss that another assumption—such as “you never embarrass a superior”—is operating, and that, to the subordi­nate, that assumption is even more powerful than “you get the job done.”

If assumptions such as these operate only in an individual and represent her idiosyncratic experience, they can be corrected more easily because the person will detect that she is alone in holding a given assumption. The power of culture comes about through the fact that the assumptions are shared and, therefore, mutually reinforced. In these instances, probably only a third party or some cross-cultural experiences could help to find common ground whereby both parties could bring their implicit assump­tions to the surface. And even after they have surfaced, such assumptions would still operate, forcing the boss and the subordinate to invent a whole new communication mechanism that would permit each to remain congru­ent with his or her culture—for example, agreeing that, before any decision is made and before the boss has stuck his neck out, the subordinate will be asked for suggestions and for factual data that would not be face threaten­ing. Note that the solution has to keep each cultural assumption intact. We cannot, in these instances, simply declare one or the other cultural assump­tion “wrong.” We have to find a third assumption to allow them both to retain their integrity.

I have dwelled on this long example to illustrate the potency of implicit, unconscious assumptions and to show that such assumptions often deal with fundamental aspects of life—the nature of time and space; human nature and human activities; the nature of truth and how we discover it; the correct way for the individual and the group to relate to each other; the relative importance of work, family, and self-development; the proper role of men and women; and the nature of the family.

These kinds of assumptions form the core of macrocultures and will be discussed in detail in Part II, The Dimensions of Culture. We do not develop new assumptions about each of these areas in every group or orga­nization we join. Members of any new group will bring their own cultural learning from prior groups, from their education, and from their socializa­tion into occupational communities, but as the new group develops its own shared history, it will develop modified or new assumptions in critical areas of its experience. It is those new assumptions that then make up the culture of that particular group.

Source: Schein Edgar H. (2010), Organizational Culture and Leadership, Jossey-Bass; 4th edition.

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