Culture formation: How new employees learn the company culture

by | Feb 5, 2023 | Culture-Performance Connection

Culture is the culmination of all a group has discovered in its efforts to survive, grow, adapt, and organize itself. Understanding how the culture formed and its evolution can give insight into the deeper assumptions. A company’s learning history can provide clues to understanding its culture. Culture can be analyzed using Schein’s three-level model. To understand the culture, you must examine all three layers, from the visible to the invisible to the unconscious. This article will focus on the leader’s role in culture formation and maintenance and how new employees learn the culture.

“What leaders consistently pay attention to, reward, control, and react to emotionally communicates most clearly what their own priorities, goals, and assumptions are.” – Edgar Schein 

How is culture formed?

Within organizations, cultures develop in response to a need, goal, or challenge. Leaders can also effect change when they force their values on employees and “make people behave in a certain way.” In this way, leaders establish, maintain, and can change an organization’s culture. Leaders cement their values into their organization’s culture in primary and secondary embedding mechanisms. The daily actions of leaders are the primary mechanisms that significantly influence the formation of culture. These behaviors convey to employees how they should “perceive, think, feel and behave” that may or may not align with the stated organizational values. These behaviors include what leaders pay attention to, how they distribute resources, what they demonstrate through role modeling, and their response to crises. The standards they use for hiring, promoting, and firing are also factors. To the extent that they are compatible with the primary mechanisms, secondary embedding mechanisms support the primary mechanisms. Formal statements, organizational design and structure, rituals, and stories are a few of these mechanisms. These secondary mechanisms can maintain the deeply ingrained organizational patterns as an organization grows.

While leaders play a significant role in establishing, maintaining, and changing cultures, other employees also contribute to maintaining the culture. A story that illustrates this concept well is The Pot Roast Story. There are a few variations of the story, but the main idea is the same. A friend asked a woman why she cut the ends off her pot roast before cooking it. The woman says, “that’s the way my mom taught me.” So, the woman asked her mom why they cut the ends off the pot roast. Her reply was the same, “that’s the way my mom taught me.” The woman then asked her grandmother the same question. Her grandmother answered, “The roast was bigger than the pan I had, so I cut off the ends to make it fit.” In the story, the woman and her mom did what the previous generation taught them. Culture is passed on in this manner, too. New employees learn the organization’s culture from other employees, just like the woman in the story learned from her mom.

Removing the ends of the pot roast made sense for the grandmother due to her resources at the time. Her solution became a taken-for-granted assumption for her daughter and granddaughter about how to make pot roast. Similarly, each person has preconceived notions about how the world works and how to interact with others. We learn some basic rules for getting along in various situations early on, so some of those relationship presumptions have since become taken for granted and fall into the unconscious. These assumptions and rules are derived from macro culture because every society has learned from its history what degree of openness and communication is practical for promoting interpersonal harmony. Therefore, every society (macro culture) develops rules of decency, manners, and tact that outline what is and is not appropriate to say in any given circumstance. So, most of us are walking examples of the rules passed down to us as children and serve as the foundational elements of cultural socialization.

Organizational culture is complex. It is learned from leaders, coworkers, and the community in which it operates. The culture is established and upheld as a result of how leaders act and communicate their values. Internal organizational structures and practices support the organization’s culture and values. Other employees consciously or unconsciously pass along their knowledge to new employees. These principles eventually take the form of subconscious assumptions or “how we do things around here.”


  • Kuppler, T. (2014, March 3). Culture fundamentals from Edgar Schein [Video]. YouTube.

    Schein, E. H. (2017). Organizational culture and leadership (5th ed.). Jossey-Bass. 

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What do the unwritten rules at your company reveal about their underlying assumptions?