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Management: perspective and practice
Management: perspective and practice

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3.3 Basic assumptions

These are almost impossible to see on the surface and are hidden beneath artefacts and expressed values – yet these are the most important. They include basic assumptions that shape members’ worldviews, beliefs and norms, which guide behaviour but are not explicitly expressed, making it harder to observe them. This is also a challenge for managers because it is quite a challenge to change something that you cannot see, but what is certain is that basic assumptions profoundly influence a person’s actions. Another issue to consider is that if some of these assumptions are taken for granted, how are they created? Do they change over time as personnel change? These questions might also explain why organisations try to select only people who will not challenge established beliefs when they are recruiting.

In Schein’s examination of these issues, he goes on to provide a list of seven dimensions that he argued provided the basic cultural assumptions that construct different societies and organisations. See Table 2.

Table 2 Schein’s dimensions of organisational culture
DimensionQuestions to be answered
1 The organisation’s relation to its environmentDoes the organisation perceive itself to be dominant, submissive, harmonising, searching out a niche?
2 The nature of human activityIs the ‘correct’ way for humans to behave to be dominant/pro-active, harmonising, or passive/ fatalistic?
3 The nature of reality/truthHow do we define what is true and what is not true, and how is truth ultimately determined both in the physical and social world? By pragmatic test, reliance on wisdom or social consensus?
4 The nature of timeWhat is our basic orientation in terms of past, present and future, and what kinds of time units are most relevant for the conduct of daily affairs?
5 The nature of human natureAre human beings basically good, neutral or evil, and is human nature perfectible or fixed?
6 The nature of human relationshipsWhat is the ‘correct’ way for people to relate to each other, to distribute power and affection? Is life competitive or cooperative? Is the best way to organise society on the basis of individualism or groupism? Is the best authority system autocratic/paternalistic or collegial/participative?
7 Homogeneity versus diversityIs the group better off if it is highly diverse or if it highly homogeneous, and should individuals in a group be encouraged to innovate or conform?

Asking the same questions posed by Schein in relation to your own organisation or one that you know well could allow you to gain some insights into its overall culture. It should be noted, however, that this model has led to various disputes about the number and type of dimensions.