10 Insights from Edgar Schein, the Culture G.O.A.T.

Edgar Schein was arguably the top global authority on the topic of organizational culture when he passed away on January 26, 2023. It’s not a stretch to consider him the Culture G.O.A.T. (or Greatest of All Time) in his field.

Many know his work, but his insights are relatively unknown to most leaders and change agents. This must change.

I’ve been a passionate culture enthusiast for close to 30 years—including 15 years as a top leader plus 15 years working across three organizations—focused on culture-related improvement and starting CultureUniversity.com. My understanding of culture was taken to an entirely new level after the last 10 years learning from Ed through numerous calls, workshops, webinars, and interviews.

Ed used to talk about a gap between the academic study of culture and the realities of culture-related improvement efforts in organizations. Our connection was unique because we bridged that gap in every conversation. Ed was the ultimate academic and thought leader. I was the business leader that relentlessly applied insights about culture to help with performance improvement efforts in many roles, including consulting on high-profile culture transformations.

This post is intended to share some of his most impactful insights and provide a look behind the scenes into his unique way of helping others. Culture has unfortunately become a topic that’s viewed by many as being soft, lacking business impact, and difficult to understand.

Edgar Schein

I found Ed’s insights always had a heavy dose of common-sense application and a strong connection to achieving business results; I think you will too.

Culture Insight #1: Don’t focus on culture. Focus on a problem, challenge, or goal —and how culture is helping or hindering progress.

This insight is at the heart of why most well-intended culture improvement efforts have little impact. The focus for many is on improving engagement, building a culture plan, or improving alignment. Ed taught us “don’t focus on culture because culture is a bottomless pit and can be a big waste of time. Just get your people involved in working on the solution to your business problem. If you don’t have time for that, you are in trouble.”

This has been my anchor when it comes to culture. What is the business problem or goal—growth, customer experience, innovation, etc.? Then let’s get busy using a meaningful understanding of culture to help us refine improvement plans and achieve results. It gives everyone context, and culture is no longer as difficult to grasp. It’s easy to get caught up in fixing a “culture problem” and building a culture plan separate from the business results that matter the most; don’t take the bait.

Always connect back to how that culture problem is precisely impacting the most critical results groups are working to deliver.

Why is solving a problem or connecting to results critical for culture-related change? Ed said, “There needs to be results in some form for a new cultural attribute to emerge.” We’ll dive deep on this point in Culture Insight #10 below.

“Culture is telling you moment to moment what to do.”

—Edgar Schein

Culture Insight #2: Culture is created and evolves through shared learning and mutual experience.

I still remember the first time I heard this from Ed because it underpinned what I tried to facilitate as a leader for decades. I repeatedly used disciplined approaches with groups to solve business problems or improve results. Those consistent approaches…every week, month, or year, drove shared learning about how to collectively achieve results. I always felt this disciplined learning was important, but I didn’t realize how fully it was intertwined with how culture is created and evolves. Unfortunately, in our get-it-done culture, we short-cut learning as we drive initiatives forward without reflecting as an individual or group. In the middle of the pandemic, Ed told me “Reflection is the key to learning and reflection is what we often rule out because we are too busy.”

This insight is important for informing how to effectively manage change with culture in mind. It can often help to phase improvement efforts and include a clear focus on capturing learning—what worked, what didn’t and why—as an input to the next phase of improvement.

“People need to be aware that 90% of their behavior is driven by cultural rules and not personality.”

—Edgar Schein

Culture Insight #3: Stop using the word “culture” so much.

Ed had a knack for being incredibly direct and clear. He was coaching me for the first time on two consulting projects. I was nervous and intimidated but excited at the same time as I explained the first project.

He stopped me and said, “Tim, you’re not going to like this, but you have to stop using the word culture so much. People don’t know what you are talking about.” He emphasized the need to clarify if I was talking about a value, behavior, norm, or something else.

I think many of us fall into this trap of using the “generic” culture word. It undermines our work because it can be very broad and meaningless. Now, I just focus on understanding problems, challenges, or goals and what’s helping or hindering progress across the team. There’s no need to talk about culture and I may not even use the word.

Edgar Schein quote "You have to stop using the word culture so much. People don’t know what you are talking about."

Culture Insight #4: Don’t plan too much or over-emphasize a framework, focus on adaptive moves.

I used to be Mr. Framework. I love working on complex problems and can build a framework, roadmap, detailed plan, or other structure to bring clarity to improvement efforts. Ed hated over-emphasizing templates and corrected me many times when I wanted to build a more detailed plan or follow a standard process. Ed was the ultimate co-creator of improvement plans as you go. Ed focused on adaptive moves, especially for what he called complex, “messy” problems where culture plays a role.

Ed described the adaptive move as, “in this situation, under these circumstances, with everything we know about culture… what should we do?”

He felt adaptive moves work much better than the grand plan. He believed it’s what you should do after seeing something in data or surfacing an issue, think through your next adaptive move. It’s a collectively defined “move” and not a grand plan that makes the difference. He said, “allow your impulses and intuition to guide you.”

“You only begin to truly understand your culture when you try to change it.”

—Edgar Schein

Culture Insight #5: Use a qualitative, quantitative, qualitative flow to understand complex organizational cultures.

Before I met Ed, he was known for proclaiming “you can’t measure culture.” Ed was the master of using qualitative methods to understand culture and was very critical of culture surveys. After meeting Ed, I joined Human Synergistics and met arguably the top quantitative expert for understanding culture, Dr. Robert Cooke (CEO of Human Synergistics and author of the Organizational Culture Inventory). I learned a tremendous amount from both culture pioneers, and it amazed me how similar their views were in many areas.

We collaborated on defining how to integrate qualitative and quantitative methods to understand culture. It became clear the following general flow is ideal (especially for a complex or large organization):

  1. Start with qualitative assessment: Understand what leaders are trying to do through interviews or group discussion. What problem are they trying to solve? What outcome or result do they need to improve or deliver? How is culture playing out to help and hinder progress?
  2. Decide if a quantitative assessment will help: Determine with leaders if applying a quantitative approach to understanding culture will help. Will baselining current status with a measurement tool help? Will a common language for the current culture, especially values and behavioral norms or unwritten rules, help team members overcome judgment or speculation about the current state? Will it help to engage additional team members beyond those directly involved in the qualitative assessment? Will it help us understand differences across levels, roles, business units or other demographics?
  3. Return to qualitative assessment: Ed said, after quantitative analysis, “we have to go back to qualitative because a program of actually intervening in the organization is not going to fly out of the numbers. The numbers will only tell you roughly where you have to work and the direction in which you have to go. The steps of the intervention, what you’re actually going to do day-by-day, is going to be a qualitative process because that organization will have all kinds of unique aspects that the quantitative doesn’t pick up.”

It was nice to see Ed evolve his thinking about the usefulness of meaningful culture surveys, but he maintained a strong disdain for what he called the “quick and dirty” culture surveys and conducting surveys with no qualitative assessment.

“Bright people doing stupid things falls in a bucket we call culture.”

—Edgar Schein

Edgar Schein and Dr. Robert Cooke discussing culture and the integration of qualitative and quantitative techniques

Culture Insight #6: It’s critical to build open and trusting relationships.

Ed closed my first interview of him 10 years ago by saying he was fascinated when someone says “I see you” to another individual. He built on this concept and defined levels of relationships that are very useful.

Ed explained, “You can have a Level Minus One relationship, which is what convicts and prisoners experience, as they are sometimes perceived by some as basically a ‘nobody,’ or a Level One relationship which is all the transactional stuff (and can be common with most relationships in organizations): I accept you as a human being, we have our roles to play, and we know how to do that.

That’s not enough. To be helpful you have to get to a Level Two relationship.

Yellow background with description of the 4 relationship levels: minus one, one, two, and three

That means “we have to acknowledge each other as real people and develop enough trust and openness so that when we communicate, we will really be telling each other the truth.”

Ed mentioned these levels of relationships in nearly every conversation for the next 10 years and emphasized the importance of building open and trusting (Level Two) relationships. This insight is completely consistent with why the Compass team puts building connection at the heart of culture.

This reality led to me joining Compass because it was the only culture-related organization I know that makes this distinction.

“Our pragmatic culture that’s all about ‘get the work done, don’t bother me with feelings and relationships’ is working less and less well.”

—Edgar Schein

Culture Insight #7: Change starts with the very first interaction.

This insight has completely changed how I interact with others. We discussed how the helper or consultant can unintentionally impact the direction of an improvement effort from the very first interaction. Ed was a master of inquiry—asking questions to understand what’s on the mind of leaders or anyone with a problem to solve.

His goal was to build a Level Two relationship with the person he was trying to help.

He encouraged helpers to hold back on offering feedback, advice, or solutions, especially in initial interactions, because that input can change the path to effectively understanding the problem. The individual you are helping may shift from an open discussion about what troubles them to a debate about solutions that could change the entire trajectory of the improvement effort.

Many leaders and consultants offer well-intended advice or feedback early in conversations. They don’t realize they may be unintentionally slowing down improvement efforts if they don’t take the time to build a Level Two relationship and fully understand the problem. Ed wrote, “Real help can be fast, but it requires an open, trusting relationship with the client that the helper has to build from the very beginning. Because of the difficulty and complexity of problems, and because the client’s own view of what is going on is so important in the relationship, this also requires a great deal of humility in the client.”

“What troubles me is the misuse of the word culture and the failure of people to see that culture is not this surface phenomenon, but it is our very core—that we live in culture, we display a culture, we are always driven by the culture. It troubles me that people don’t see that.”

—Edgar Schein

Culture Insight #8: To provide real help, be a humble consultant and not an expert.

Ed wrote a book called Humble Inquiry and released an updated edition with his son, Peter Schein.

Ed explained, “Humble inquiry is creating a climate in which you display through your asking genuine questions an interest in the other person such that they will want to tell you the truth in what really is going on.

Now, why is that important? Because I think the major pathology in all organizations that I’ve seen is that upward communication is very faulty. Subordinates know lots of things that would make the place work better or safer that they for various reasons withhold.”

What was Ed’s favorite question to start this humble inquiry?

“What’s worrying you?”

It’s simple, but powerful, and he believed it was an intensely personal question. That’s why a Level Two relationship is needed. He also regularly used a similar question: “What troubles you?”

Ed believed a helper may need to switch between multiple roles. Most of the time should be spent as a humble consultant using humble inquiry. If an individual or group is stuck, it may be necessary to switch to an “expert” or “doctor” role but, contrary to the belief of many consultants and leaders, it’s not the primary role to provide meaningful help.

“What builds relationships, what solves problems, what moves things forward is asking the right questions.”

—Edgar Schein, Humble Inquiry

Edgar Schein and his son, Peter Schein. Ed and Peter collaborated on new books, revised book editions, consulting, and other areas during recent years. Ed and Peter were both on most of our calls together.

Culture Insight #9 : Don’t be seduced into thinking behavior change is culture change.

This is another classic Ed quote and it’s incredibly powerful for helping people understand why it’s important to understand shared beliefs, assumptions, and/or behavioral norms. We’ve been “bombarded by cultural norms” since birth.

We’re great at fitting in as we imitate the behavior of others or understand “what’s expected” in a group. Individuals in a group may show a new behavior, but it doesn’t mean it’s sustainable. We need to understand what’s driving the behavior we see on the surface because it will take a shift in a belief or assumption for a behavior change to be sustainable. I love his explanation: “if it’s successful, and people like it, and it becomes a norm, then you can say it’s become a culture change.” 

Ed provided a great example of behavior change that falls short of culture change:

“People are working with the illusion that if they change behavior that they have changed the culture when all they have really done is change the behavior.

If that behavior is, in fact, liked better by people and producing better results, then in the people’s heads it migrates into ‘Oh, that is really a better way of doing it.’ And if a lot of people now are having that feeling ‘Yes, it’s fun to be nicer to patients’ and that continues to work, then someone walking into that hospital will experience it as the culture because it’s there, everyone is doing it, and it has stability.

That stability comes from the feedback from the environment, not from the boss saying you are doing it right now. The boss can also impose behavior change that might not work out in which case, by definition, it’s never even become a cultural element.”

“When it comes to culture, we get what we settle for.”

—Edgar Schein

Culture Insight #10: Results are required for any new cultural attribute to form.

This culture fundamental is at the heart of why culture matters and how to approach culture-related change.

Ed explained, “What really stabilizes culture is what works. It’s not what the boss says we’re going to do. That’s the first step, but it doesn’t go anywhere unless what they do actually works better. If people can see that a behavior change produces results, it is legitimately called a new cultural element. Not because someone said you should do it but because it produces a result.

“Culture is built by feedback from the environment and internally by the comfort in how we do things.”

The results Ed normally focused on were not the results many leaders think about when it comes to culture. Many leaders emphasize engagement, building psychological safety, or improving collaboration but Ed normally focused on the results that matter most to organizations: innovation, growth, customer satisfaction, quality, safety, etc.

Understanding the direct connection between culture and results helped me build an intense and relentless focus on achieving business results in inclusive ways that overcome culture-related challenges. It can often be better to pilot improvements on a specific strategic priority, business unit, or team before expanding to org-wide changes. Ed talked about creating a culture island, container, or sandbox where team members feel safe to violate the rules of the broader culture to achieve results.

This insight about the connection of results and culture also helps us understand why culture matters to organizations. Ed said, culture matters to “the extent an organization is adaptive to both external and internal realities. If it’s not adaptive, it matters a lot, if it’s adaptive, it doesn’t matter much, people don’t notice it (the culture), they just go along their merry way. So culture really only matters when things aren‘t working right for you.”

How do most leaders know when their organization is struggling to adapt? When results deteriorate and that can be too late to turn things around because deeply entrenched cultural norms may be hard to shift. Every organization needs to proactively understand how culture is helping and hindering their top priorities as a normal part of strategy and operations.

Edgar Schein Leaders Culture Quote “The only thing of real 
importance that leaders do is to create and manage culture.”

Ed was a fountain of knowledge when it came to culture insights. My top 10 list barely touches the surface of his contribution to the field of organizational culture and beyond.

We compiled a list of books, videos, and other resources below. My favorite books are Organizational Culture and Leadership, Humble Leadership, and Humble Consulting.

Ed and Peter Schein also helped tremendously with concepts we included in Compass Culture Academy, a 2.5-day deep dive into understand the connection of culture and performance improvement.

We were humbled when Ed said, “You are the only organization I know that does culture stuff in an appropriate, serious way.”

I’ll miss learning from Ed in literally every conversation, but I am one of an army of people he’s impacted in an enduring, meaningful way.

Edgar Schein culture expert and Compass's expart Tim Kuppler
One of my favorite pictures with Ed laughing during an interview at the
Human Synergistics Ultimate Culture Conference in San Francisco.

About Edgar Schein

Edgar Schein was Professor Emeritus of MIT’s Sloan School of Management. He is the recipient of the Distinguished Scholar Practitioner Award from the Academy of Management, the Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Leadership Association, and the Lifetime Achievement Award in Organization Development from the International OD Network.

Books and other resources



Blog Posts, Interviews, Transcripts & Videos: