What Are the Three Levels of Organizational Culture: Schein's Three Levels of Organizational Culture

Cite this item: S. Shafqat. (2021). What Are the Three Levels of Organizational Culture. Risk Concern. Accessible at: link.


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Organizational culture has been defined in several ways by various authors. Broadly, it can be defined as "a set of common understandings" (Becker & Geer, 1970).

Edgar Schein, in his 1985 work titled "How culture forms, develops and changes," and other authors (Morgan, 1986; Rousseau, 1990), explained it as having different series of layers. Three levels of culture have been proposed in Schein's work: these three layers are artifacts, values, and basic assumptions. Figure 1 shows an illustration of these layers.

Schein's three layers of culture, what are the three layers of organizational culture, three layers of organizational culture discussed, organizational culture based on Schein's work.
Figure 1: Source: Author. Based on Schein's three layers of culture. Source: Redman and Wilkinson chapter 10: organizational and corporate culture, Contemporary human resource management: (Pearson, 2013; 4th edition).

The first level in Schein's layers is the visible artifacts; these are the surface manifestations of culture. Essentially, the most tangible or evident elements alluding to organizational culture "Artifacts include any tangible or visible elements in an organization" (Denison, 1990). Examples of artifacts would be: furnishing, dress code, architecture, language, office jokes, artwork, decorations, and stories.

These demonstrate organizational artifacts and give the internal or external observer an insight into the surface manifestation of culture, which may also be described as the outermost layer, or the surface elements of organizational culture.

Nonetheless, artifacts are the most visible part of the culture and might be considered as the tip of the iceberg in terms of understanding organizational culture. However, even though artifacts are visible, at times, they can be very hard to decipher, and further probing may be required to understand their meaning, or the context of their meaning, which may not be as obvious as inferred from a passing glance.

It is also important to note here that meaning derived from artifacts can also be subjective, i.e., the beholder may assign a meaning that is not intended by the organization; this condition highlights the importance of veracity, in the assignment of meaning. It is best to inquire or read organizational material to accurately understand the intended meaning or tonality behind the outermost layer of the organizational culture, the organizational artifacts

An example apt here would be the Seattle headquarter of Amazon, which features the unique dome design; arguably, representing the audacity of the company itself.

amazons culture represented in its architecture, amazon cultural artifacts
Figure 2: Biodin (2018). The exterior of Amazon Spheres captured on May 10, (JPEG)

Another example is IBM's dress code and how it has evolved over the years to represent the artifact level, or the outermost level of organizational culture.

How ibm's culture has changed, schein ibm culture change
Figure 3: IBM (1916). Members of major component division IBM (JPEG)

The dress code has changed or evolved, over the years, just as the culture has evolved from predictive to a more agile one. Now the dress code is smart-casual rather than formal. Before, as IBM had a more bureaucratic culture, intertwined with the predictive nature of its operational workings, the dress code was an outermost layer of representation of the 'formality' of it, and also a representation of the bureaucratic, or predictive nature of organizational workings. Now as its culture is more agile, with a greater emphasis on team-oriented and delayered operations, the dress code is representative of it (Davidson, 2011).

Values, which are the second layer of organizational culture, are best described as the 'espoused justifications.' These are the goals, strategies, philosophy, etcetera. For example, a national hospital service may have a motto of "selfless service" and "Duty, Care, and Humility." These mottos, essentially, should act as the values that shape the culture and represent how the national hospital service culture is seen externally as well. These values should also affect the formulation, or continual shaping of the organizational philosophy, as they are internalized by members.

Nonetheless, it is important to note that the second layer of culture, in all practicality, is likely to cascade in the organization, top down, i.e., from the top management team (TMT). If the actions of the TMT are contrary to the espoused values, these values, for all practical purposes, are unlikely to be adopted by other staff and management team members.

Another example apt here is that of Oracle. Oracle's emphasis on communication. Its values guide states: "We share information effectively with each other, but also know how to protect the confidentiality of our information" (Oracle, 2019). These values place an emphasis on internal communication, as well as the confidentiality of information shared.

Finally, underlying assumptions are the tacit understanding that members of the organization have regarding its culture; "unconscious, taken for granted habits, perceptions or beliefs." An appropriate example here is Facebook. Many articles (Gillett, 2017; Ward, 2017; Cain, 2017) have praised Facebook as being the best place to work. This has been nurtured by Facebook's (TMT), due to their underlying assumptions about employees being positive.

Oppositely, Amazon has been described as having a harsh work culture (DeMers, 2018). Organizational systems are designed by the TMT with their views on people and employees in mind, and it may be argued that as Amazon's TMT, perhaps, unknowingly, may hold unfavorable underlying assumptions regarding people, employees, and realistic/reasonable expectations from workers.

The factors governing their viewpoint, alternatively, can be described as underlying assumptions that have shaped their views. This can also have a cascading impact throughout the organization and further impact all levels of the organization—for example, the lowest level management subordinate relationship or exercised management style.

However, it is important to note that underlying assumptions aren't just impacted by internal actions of the TMT. External perceptions in the social circles of employees, the media, and society at large can also impact the underlying assumptions employees, or even management may harbor regarding their organization.

Employees, based on their political leanings, etcetera, can also develop different underlying perceptions about the organization. For example, a group of employees that may favor a specific political ideology may develop different underlying assumptions about the organization, compared to another group subscribed to a different political ideology, based on the internal and external actions of the organization and its TMT.


Becker, H.S. and Geer, B. (1970) *Participant observation and interviewing: a comparison1, pp.133-42, in Filstead, W. (ed.) Qualitative Methodology, Chicago, IL: Rand McNally.

Cain, A. (2017). This Is What It's Like to Work at Facebook, Named the Best Place to Work 3 Years in a Row. Retrieved from Inc:

Davidson, C. N. (2011). How IBM Is Changing Its HR Game. Harvard Business Review.

Denison, D R (1996) What is the difference between organizational culture and organizational climate? A native's point of view on a decade of paradigm wars. Academy of Management Review, July, pp 619-54.

Gillett, R. (2017). 7 reasons Facebook is the best place to work in America and no other company can compare. Retrieved from Business Insider:

Morgan, G. (1986) Images of Organization, Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

Oracle. (2019, June 19). Values and Ethics. Retrieved from

Rousseau, D.M. (1990) *Assessing organizational culture: the case for multiple methods', in Schneider, B. (ed.), San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Schein, E.H. (1985) 'How culture forms, develops and changes', in Kilmann, R.H ., Saxton, M.J., Serpa, R., San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Ward, M. (2017). Facebook is the best place to work in. Retrieved from CNBC: