According to Edgar H. Schein in his book Humble Inquiry culture has two levels: espoused values and tacit assumptions. Before we talk about them, let’s define what he means. The espoused values are the values that we list in our corporate values. These are things like trust and team building.
Tacit assumptions, however, are deeper; so deep, in fact, that we rarely talk about them or even think about them. At one time, tacit assumptions may have been values. Then, over time, they became so taken for granted, that we stopped talking about them. This doesn’t mean that they went away, merely that they became semi-invisible. By this I mean that we live by them and believe in them at a deep level. However, we are not consciously aware that we are doing so.
Unfortunately, because they are at an unconscious level, our tacit assumptions frequently cause problems for us. These issues frequently manifest as difficulties following our espoused core values.
For example, many companies in the US have a core value related to team building. However, a tacit assumption in the US culture is that we are rugged individualists and the unwritten rule is “each man for himself”. As a result, when companies espouse the value of team building, there are frequently inconsistencies that they don’t even register as being inconsistent. For example: Often companies with team building as a core value will still have reward systems that reward the individual not the team.
What does this mean for business? Well, issues like the one above crop up due to country based cultural biases. This explains why a plant in one country behaves differently than one in a different country. It also explains why employees who were raised in different countries react differently to team building exercises.
Another impact for older, established businesses is that true, deep held corporate values may be harder to identify – simply because they are no longer thought about or discussed. It’s just how things get done. That is one reason why in this type of environment, given enough time, I favor identifying values based on story telling vs. looking at values cards.
Tacit assumptions also explains why it’s easier for trusted partners like networking partners or mastermind members to identify each other’s core values than it is to identify their own. We are so used to our own tacit assumptions that we stop seeing them. We just always do it that way. It’s much easier to see them at work in others.
I find this idea of tacit assumptions interesting because it explains so much of how business culture works, why we are so marvelously inconsistent, and why we sometimes find it so hard to stay true to our own avowed core values. What tacit assumptions are at work in your business? What can you do to unearth them and make them visible? And once you do, are they worth adding to your core values? Or should efforts be made to change the tacit assumption?