How culture emerges in new groups?

The rules of the social order that dominate our day-to-day interactions are the bedrock of culture. We learn those rules as we are socialized into our family and acculturated into our nation and ethnic group. How those rules were created in the first place is difficult to decipher in cultures that have existed for some time, but it is possible to observe this process of creation in new groups and organizations. The best way to demystify the concept of culture is first of all to become aware of culture creation in our own experi­ence, to perceive how something comes to be shared and taken for granted, and to observe this particularly in the groups that we enter and belong to. We bring culture with us from our past experience, but we are constantly reinforcing that culture or building new elements as we encounter new people and new experiences.

The strength and stability of culture derives from the fact that it is group based—that the individual will hold on to certain basic assump­tions to ratify his or her membership in the group. If someone asks us to change our way of thinking or perceiving, and that way is based on what we have learned in a group that we belong to or identify with, we will resist the change because we do not want to deviate from our group even if privately we think that the group is wrong. This process of trying to be accepted by our membership and reference groups is unconscious and, by virtue of that fact, very powerful. But how does a group develop a common way of think­ing in the first place?

To examine how this aspect of culture actually begins, how a group learns to deal with its external and internal environment and develops assumptions that then get passed on to new members, we need to analyze group situations in which such events are actually observable. Fortunately such groups are created from time to time in various kinds of human rela­tions training workshops where strangers come together for purposes of learning about group dynamics and leadership. When the National Training Laboratories first evolved such group dynamics workshops at Bethel, Maine in the late 1940s, it was not accidental that they labeled Bethel as a “cultural island” to highlight the fact that the participants would be encouraged to suspend some of their learned rules of the exist­ing social order to learn how norms and rules emerge in the microcultures of the learning groups (Bradford, Gibb, & Benne, 1964; Schein & Bennis, 1965; Schein, 1999a, 1999b).

In making a detailed analysis of small groups, I am not implying that group phenomena can be automatically treated as models for organizational phenomena. Organizations bring in additional levels of complexity and new phenomena that are not visible in the small group. But all organizations started as small groups and continue to function in part through vari­ous small groups within them. So the understanding of culture formation in small groups is, in fact, necessary to understanding how culture may evolve in the large organization through small-group subcultures and through the interplay of small groups within the organization.

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

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