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The three levels of culture

Culture is a tricky beast. Easy to talk about. Hard to create. I come across many leaders who have huge ambitions for their businesses. There is a potential for growth. There is a leadership drive to scale or go international. They know their people and their culture is essential to their success. A new set of brand messaging is sometimes developed (I often help with this!). Grand statements, well intended and highly motivational are launched (and loved). But there is a problem. Things don't seem to move fast enough. The people in the company, although exposed to these statements do not sometimes seem to behave in accordance with them. Change is not forthcoming. "Why is this?" I sometimes hear frustrated leaders say. "Why can it be hard to fuel a powerful change and help a company and brand live into its full potential?". It seems culture is not something that automatically follows nice sound-bite statements. Perhaps this post might help to explain the reasons why...

In his amazing work "Organisation Culture & Leadership" Edgar H. Schein (Sloan Professor of Management Emeritus at the Sloan School of Management at MIT) identifies three levels of organisational culture. These are essential to appreciate if one is to intentionally seek to design a culture that fits and fuels a brands ambitions because, as I often say, your employee experience will effect your customer experience.

Schein explains that culture, in it's simplicity, is made up of a number of assumptions an individual has when they are part of a group.

Heres my summary of Schein's levels:

LEVEL 1 - ARTIFACTS (What is seen)

This level holds assumptions about visible structures and processes. It also contains observed behaviours. This level is the outcome of Levels 2 and 3. It's how they play out in reality. It's how customers are served, complaints are handled. It's how colleagues are treated and how managers motivate. It's how ideas are fostered and innovation and change is embraced. It's how the interactions of the business with staff and customers are truly experienced.


In this level is contained assumptions about ideals, goals, values and aspirations. It's how the company rationalises and communicates its ambitions. It's what the company claims. You find this kind of information in employee handbooks, onboarding decks and slapped on office walls. You hear the mantras banded about in townhall meetings and leadership presentations. (Note: often "brand strategy" and its accompanying statements like "vision", "mission", "values" etc sit in here)


Within this level are unconscious, often taken-for-granted beliefs and values that are not usually expressed. These unwritten rules often drive behaviour, perception, thought and feeling. If appreciated these assumptions might be whispered between colleagues or just innately known amongst the population. They are often shaped by the decisions of leadership in the past, the passing over of new ideas and the beliefs and principles of decision makers.

All of these levels are important. All need work and attention in the audacious attempt to design and build a culture which works for a business.

The culture you build for your business fosters within it decision making. Large bold decisions and small micro decisions. Decisions for groups and functions of a business and decisions for individuals on their own. These decisions will largely be made based on the culture of your organisation. "The way things are done around here". So the above three levels, I'd suggest, are crucial to begin to unpick in your organisation and to ask if the existing principles which lie in each are in accord with each other are in accord. If there is a gap - you've got work to do!

For example, I, like other brand strategists, often do work in "Level 2" creating bold brand aspirations and statements. But if work is not done to challenge and perhaps change basic underlying assumptions in teams (Level 3) then this work will not be embedded. Therefore what is seen in the behaviour of employees will certainly not be congruent with the brands intentions and the behaviours that are seen (Level 1) will not be effected.

So - if you want change to occur and you are not seeing it, the likelihood is that there is an issue in one of the Levels. Our job, is to figure out at which level the issue lies and then to determine a strategy and set of measurable actions to improve things.

To truly influence a culture and orientate it around the big idea of a brand, leaders have to become aware of where their culture is, where it needs to change, model the right behaviours, role up their sleeves, communicate the changes, explain the reasons, motivate, design the processes, reward and engage their people and do the work. In short, culture takes time and investment to do properly. This takes effort. Dedication. Although important, slapping some values on the office wall and proclaiming nice statements simply won't cut it on their own - and Schein's levels show us why this is the case.


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