Ed Schein’s Campfire Exercise


Multicultural team members tend to have different cultural rules for relationship building and communication. This leads them to have to collectively find a way of giving themselves a vehicle for exploring rules of own social orders. (To create a new culture)

This exercise asks team members to suspend their cultural assumptions in order to build a team culture of trust. A culture of trust will foster relationships where good and effective communication can happen and a person's value is affirmed: where the value she/he places on him/herself is ratified and confirmed through a process of mutual reinforcement. (Society built around relationships of sustaining each other and compliments are one vehicle that give people 'face').

This exercise imposes new norms in which to create relationships by creating a cultural island. We will need new norms because

  • Tasks are getting more complex
  • We work in multiple occupational cultures
  • There are multiple macrocultures
  • There is increasing complexity of organizational missions
  • We play cultural scripts as if they were reality but they are just scripts. (For example, who says we have to 'reach out to each other'
  • Organizations have shorthand and acronyms addiction, people think there is mutual understanding of a concept but often there isn't and neither is there knowledge on how to operationalise what we're talking about e.g. how do we getr a 'culture of collaboration'?

Purpose of the exercise

To build a dialogic process for creating a relationship

Sit in a circle facing the center of the table with an object e.g. a bowl of candy in the middle of it (the campfire).
Keeping your eyes on only the campfire i.e. do not make eye contact with anyone, in turn and without interruption speak/think out loud about one or two task relevant questions for example:

  • Why you are here and what you want out of this meeting.
  • In your home organization what would you do or have you done when your boss is about to make a costly mistake.
  • In your culture how do you decide whether on not you can trust a colleague, boss or subordinate?

Give yourself the experience. Don't worry about the others. This requires suspension of your assumptions about the others in the group and a focus on yourself. Be sincere).

  • One speaks after the other.
  • You must keep looking at and talking to the campfire
  • When everyone is finished you can react but only to the campfire.

o The process to be used must be a structured dialogue around concrete questions
o Exercise has to be personal, specific and build relationships around the working group.
o Do not make comments about other cultures e.g. Japanese do not look people in the eye
o Look for opportunities for people to get the 'campfire' opportunity without labeling it as 'dialogue' or whatever. There are opportunities to disrupt the cultural norms. For example: Get everyone's opinion on a topic, option, or point before you begin discussion of it, as in "Of these three options who thinks option one will work?"
o This is not a touchy feely process stick to task relevant information

Recommendation: Do not advocate good communication. Advocate good relationships to get the task agreed, the task process determined and the optimum structure established.