Leaders often want to improve the culture of an organization. They see a flaw or weakness and start an initiative to make things better. Somewhere, right now, there are bosses trying to transform cultures to make them more (take your pick):

  • Innovative
  • Customer-centric
  • Collaborative
  • Empowering
  • Nimble
  • Diverse
  • Accountable
  • Risk-taking
  • Tech-literate

Good goals, right?

So leaders form task forces to hammer out new mission statements. They write up new goals and policies. They hold meetings to share and spread the new vision. They reinforce the message with posters, maybe even T-shirts. Then they pray for it to work.

When it doesn't, it's likely because bosses failed to break through a tough, invisible barrier. It's one simple word: Assumptions.

Credit MIT's Edgar Schein with this wisdom. He's a noted expert on organizational culture. His book "Organizational Culture and Leadership" helped me understand that culture isn't simply "the way we do things around here." It's "the way we think" and how that drives what we do.

Schein says organizational culture exists on three levels:

  • Artifacts - The Surface Level: These are the things we see around the workplace. The room setups, the way people dress, the keepsakes and awards they display, the language they use, the inside jokes they tell, the organizations they join. Any of these artifacts may or may not truly define the culture -- but they can fool us into thinking we know it, based on what we see.
  • Espoused Values - The Middle Level: These are the goals and philosophies people say they believe in. These can range from mission statements to marketing promises to brand identities. They, too, may or may not be an accurate reflection of the organization's culture -- depending on whether the leadership aligns important actions with the words, whether they measure what they say matters, and whether they reward what meets the mark.
  • Basic Underlying Assumptions: The Deepest Level: These are ideas that are so ingrained that, according to Schein, "we neither confront nor debate [them] and hence are difficult to change." It's like the part of the iceberg that's underwater: huge, unseen and potentially dangerous.

That last one explains why, when leaders try to modify cultures, they may change a few visible things and assorted behaviors, but not the culture. Until they break through that invisible barrier, bosses can't systematically examine and evaluate assumptions and then help those habits of mind evolve.

I heard the perfect example of this years ago during a Poynter seminar. I'm afraid I've forgotten the name of the editor and the newspaper -- shame on me -- but I do recall the core of the message.

The paper's leadership was frustrated by its inability to retain journalists of color. Diversity was an espoused value of the paper, but it clearly hadn't become a part of the culture. Finally, the leadership discovered that an underlying assumption was part of the barrier.

The assumption: that new reporters at that paper "paid their dues" by living and working in outlying bureaus. In time, they could move up to the main newsroom. Many staffers had followed that route. But they were all white -- as white as those small towns where they got their start.

As the editor explained, life in the bureaus could be lonely and dull for most young reporters, but only the journalists of color had to deal with racial isolation, too. It didn't take much of an offer from another paper -- one that provided quality of the workplace and quality of life -- to lure them away. Leaders at the paper re-evaluated the "bureau is always the best launching pad" assumption and developed alternatives.

Surfacing assumptions is often soul-searching work:

  • You can't build innovation into your culture until you examine how your organization really views the price (in dollars and shame) of failure.
  • You can't become a collaborative culture until you peel back and challenge assumptions about status and power.
  • You can't become tech-literate when leaders assume they can laugh about their Luddite lives as they tell staff to get geeky.

I believe you get to assumptions by asking questions for which you might not like the answers. Here are a few I suggest:

  • If your best friend were coming to work here tomorrow, what should he/she really know in order to succeed?
  • Who has the easiest access to resources and support -- and why?
  • What are the sacred cows?
  • What issues do people shy away from talking about?
  • Who are the legendary heroes and villains people tell stories about?
  • What behaviors do bosses consistently reward or ignore?
  • Where are the gaps between what we say we stand for and what we do in practice?

The answers will show you the work you really need to do to change a culture. The good news is, you'll have smashed the invisible barrier.

There's one more powerful question you can ask when investigating the assumptions in your culture. I'll tell you about it in today's podcast: What Great Bosses Know about Changing a Culture.

Poynter's "What Great Bosses Know" podcast is sponsored by The City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. You can download a complete series of these podcasts free on iTunes U. Poynter's leadership and management expert Jill Geisler shares practical information on leadership and management that's valuable for bosses in newsrooms and all walks of life.