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Schein's leadership culture-change actions


Disciplines > Leadership > Leadership actions > Schein's leadership culture-change actions

Primary mechanisms | Secondary mechanisms | See also


Noted psychologist Edgar Schein identified five primary mechanisms and five secondary mechanisms by which leaders change cultures.

Primary mechanisms

These are the main ways by which leaders effect cultural change through their visible actions.


The values, beliefs, priorities, and so on of the leader appear in where they place their attention. Followers look at what the leader is looking at and pay close attention to their emotions. When a leader gets particularly passionate or annoyed, then followers assume that the subject being attended to is important.

Reactions to crises

In a crisis, people's deeper values are exposed, for example whether they go into self-preservation mode or whether they gallantly seek to help others first. The higher level of emotion in crises also means that we will remember what happens then more than at other times.

The result is that in a crisis, the leader's actions will be both remembered and also taken to be a truer example of who they really are.

Role modeling

People listen to leaders, and they also watch carefully what they do. When there is a conflict between these, they will believe the leader's actions before their words. People also assume the behavior of leaders is what is right and will hence emulate them. How leaders behave is how their followers will tend to behave.

Allocation of rewards

Rewards, from praise to promotion, are assumed to reflect desired behavior as well as desired results. If a cultural change to more collaborative behavior is desired and someone gets a bonus for achieving outstanding result but using selfish behavior, then it will be assumed that selfish behavior is OK. To change the culture, it would be necessary for that person to be censured, not rewarded, for their selfish behavior.

Criteria for selection and dismissal

Recruitment, promotion and dismissal are both critical for choosing who does what and also extreme forms of reward and punishment. The criteria used should consider the style and personality as well as the technical competence of the person involved. In this way, the cultural aspects of the organization may be included in the selection and dismissal processes.

Secondary mechanisms

These are additional methods by which a leader may indirectly change the culture.

Design of organizational structure

'Function follows form' is a common saying, and applies here. It has also been said that 'First we create our organizations and then they create us'. The hierarchical shape of any organization will have a subtle effect on how they operate. Thus, to change the organization, changing its structure can be highly effective.

Design of systems and procedures

The systems by which an organization is run have a wide effect on how people think. This includes budgeting, information systems, performance reviews and management development activities. Deliberate design of these can ensure alignment with desired cultural directions.

Design of facilities

The layout of offices often reflects subconsciously the values of an organization, both in terms of the who sits near who and also in the differentiation in benefits that individuals are given. More space, thicker carpets, window seats, bigger desks and more are all symbols of superiority. In some traditional organizations, there are meted out very carefully according to management grade. In other companies, everyone has the same sized cubicle with very little differentiation between management levels.

Stories, legends and myths

The stories that people tell and re-tell in organizations typically reflect the values and beliefs of the culture. Hence, changing the stories will tend to change the culture. This is particularly powerful as it is spread at the individual level and hence has grass-roots support and credibility.

Formal statements

Formal statements by the organization, although not always as credible as grass-roots whisperings, are the public face of the organization, and hence demand attention. They also may later form the basis of formal arguments and actions, from decisions around allocation of resource to discipline and dismissal.

See also


Buy Me

Edgar Schein, Organizational Culture and Leadership, Jossey-Bass, 1996 

  One of the very best books on organizational culture. Intelligent and detailed understanding of what culture is, rather than a list of cultural attributes. Includes significant chapters on how leaders shape culture.


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