How Assumptions Impact Organizational Culture

We all make assumptions as we go about our daily life, with a good portion of them being made while at work. Many of these assumptions are made without knowing it or thinking about it.

Assumptions are usually based on something we have learned previously and do not question.  As part of our belief system, assumptions help us form judgments, make meaning, and draw conclusions about what is happening and what others are thinking. When information is missing, they help us complete our own story.

Assumptions are also an important part of daily life in organizations. They are the invisible, taken-for-granted beliefs and values that form the culture of an organization and impact how the organization performs.  In the words of Edgar Schein (2004), “organizational culture is a pattern of shared basic assumptions that a group working together for a common goal has created in learning to cope with the problems of external adaptation and internal integration.” It is about the correct way to think, talk, perceive, feel and act, in certain situations.

Think about your own organization for a minute.

  • What assumptions are you making about your organization?
  • Do others in the organization share your assumptions?
  • Is there a set of shared assumptions that guide how work gets done, how people relate to each other, and how decisions are made?
  • How easy would it be for everyone to identify the shared assumptions and describe the collective meaning of each?
  • Are the shared assumptions serving the organization well?  If not, how hard would it be to change them?

Answers to all of these questions will help you begin to see the impact assumptions have in your organization.  Because the impact of assumptions is felt individually and collectively in organizations as outcomes, it is useful to know what actions will have the greatest positive impact on organizational culture.

Ways to Strengthen the Impact of Individual Assumptions on Organizational Culture

  • Know your ground truth — your beliefs and values.
  • Know how you plan and think through every day situations.
  • Know what information is relevant and accurate to making an assumption.
  • Be open to the perspectives of others. Listen first. Seek to understand with questions before making an assumption.
  • Test your assumptions to make sure you understand the intent of others.
  • Use your critical thinking skills to break apart, analyze and improve your assumptions.

By paying attention to how assumptions are made, individuals begin to notice what they and others are taking for granted.  This learning leads to new insights, different experiences, and ultimately improved assumptions.

Ways to Check the Impact of Shared Assumptions on Organizational Culture

Shared assumptions represent the most powerful aspect of an organization’s culture, but they are often not clearly articulated.  However, it is essential for organizational leaders to have a strong grasp of their shared assumptions.   Without this understanding, it is difficult to create and maintain a high-performing culture that encourages and rewards collective effort.  Some ways for leaders to check the impact of shared assumptions are:

  • Observe what is going on around you
  • Listen to the stories shared in and out of the organization
  • See how others respond when acting as a role model or coaching others
  • Notice what people pay attention to
  • Check out the language and symbols commonly used
  • Is purpose seen as bigger than positions or practices?
  • Notice the issues employees shy away from talking about
  • How accessible are resources and support?
  • Are groups working in harmony across the organization?
  • Observe the reaction to critical incidents; to remedial and repair strategies
  • Notice the behaviors that are rewarded or ignored

To understand the real culture of an organization, it is necessary to get to the deepest level of assumptions.  It is a hard task that requires everyone’s involvement.  Most often it will require organizational leaders to get things moving by identifying the shared values and associated behavioral expectations to address its most pressing internal and external challenges.  If what the leader proposes works and continues to work, it can then become the shared assumptions.  When shared assumptions form by this process, it creates the needed stability and meaning for the organization.  When assumptions do not align with the shared values, disconnects arise.  If left unattended, the impact will be seen across the organization.

What shared assumptions would be most valuable to support the needed change in your organization?

Human Capital Advisory Services
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Kathryn Johnson

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