nStratagem Layers of Culture (Stratigraphy)

Culture Layering – The Hidden Dangers in Culture Transformation

The Encounter

If you are currently in the middle of a culture change programme you may have encountered sub-cultures and even hidden cultures in your organisation. You may now be either stuck in molasses or feel like you are in the twilight zone with your mind spinning and wanting to give up. 

When archaeologists make a discover they often dig through as many preceding layers of dirt and debris of past societies  to get a full history of time to then make assertions about their new discovery and how all of that then informs present civilisation. So for them layers of “culture” are key to understanding human civilisations (organisations). Pompeii is a great example of this “layering” of cultures.

The Cultural World of Edgar Schein

Here’s how Schein defines organizational culture in his book Organizational Culture and Leadership (5th Edition):

The culture of a group can be defined as the accumulated shared learnings of that group as it solves its problems of external adaptation and internal integration; which has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, feel, and behave in relation to those problems. This accumulated learning is a pattern or system of beliefs, values, and behavioral norms that come to be taken for granted as basic assumptions and eventually drop out of awareness.

One can see the intricacies and complexities or the different layers in this existential definition. Thinking systemically, all these layers and patterns (beliefs, values & norms) not only are co-dependent or symbiotic but in order to change, develop or shape culture each layer or intricacy must be considered.

The danger being that head-first culture change can add more complexity or confusion as the various initiatives, albeit well intentioned, may be at cross purposes.


Organisational culture transformation is never easy at the best of times but what makes it even more challenging is the many complex layers (stratigraphy) of organisation culture present at the same time and sharing the same space that are all linked as a single “living” organism. Change in one layer impacts the other. Such a symbiotic challenge needs a clear strategy and a delicate execution plan to make effective change.

Those who think that they are dealing with a single culture need to think again. Culture transformation is very messy but not for obvious reasons.  For example, if you have ever encountered resistance or sabotage that was completely unexpected and coming from a surprising cohort in an organisation you will get a vicarial sense of what I am speaking about.

The Salad Bowl

My advice is not to approach culture change as if you are mixing a salad in a bowl as that will only lead to confusion, disharmony and talent apathy due to an erosion of trust and credibility. You may be seen as a threat to the status quo to those hidden in the “shadows” of your organisation.

It is important to map out every layer in the organisation (both visible and hidden) so you can appreciate how your planned intervention(s) will be impactful and not be eroded or diminished due to resistance and sabotage.

We can help you navigate the many layers in your organisation, so your time, money and resources are not wasted and your credibility, plans, talent and brand remain intact.

Contact us about how we can help. We know how to do this.

Norm Murray

#culturechange   #transformation  #culturetransformation

Founder & Chief Purpose Officer

On a mission to help organisations and people be the very best versions of themselves so they can change the world.

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