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What is a Culture?

We define a culture as being one of the following:

  • the beliefs, customs, arts, etc., of a particular society, group, place, or time
  • a particular society that has its own beliefs, ways of life, art, etc.
  • a way of thinking, behaving, or working that exists in a place or organization (such as a business)

When we talk about culture in an organization, we are mainly addressing the general way of thinking, behaving, and working that characterizes that particular organization.  This has links to the other definitions of culture, because what the group believes is true and the values that are defined in the organization's mission, purpose, and procedures can have powerful influences over the behavior and attitudes of its employees.

Edgar Schein, a psychologist and expert in the field of culture, describes organizational culture as " a set of basic tacit assumptions about how the world is and ought to be that a group of people share and that determines their perceptions, thoughts, feelings, and, to some degree, their overt behavior." (E.H. Schein,  Organizational Culture and Leadership 1992).  He defines three levels of organizational culture: assumptions, values, and artifacts.  

Org -culture -levels

Assumptions are the unconscious underlying beliefs of individuals in the organization and are not visible.  Values are espoused beliefs, which may be visible through instruments like surveys.  Artifacts are the visible aspects of culture shared by members of an organization, including verbal, behavioral, and physical artifacts.  These artifacts are the visible manifestations of the culture: behavior, symbols, environment, language, procedures, etc.  Within this hierarchy, the underlying assumptions of an organization are the most powerful and the most difficult to change.

The culture of an organization generally comes from three sources: 

  • beliefs, values and assumptions of founders;
  • learning experience of group members; and
  • new beliefs brought in by new members/leaders.

As such, leadership and experience/learning are the primary means of instilling culture in an organization. Schein identifies leadership as being particularly crucial in reducing organizational anxiety in a period of adaptation, when the basic assumptions of the organization are called into question or when new experience challenges the accepted ways of doing things.

Within the culture of an organization there are many different subcultures, which may be composed of groups of individuals sharing similar tasks or interests, and these different subcultures may have competing priorities and values. 

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