Monday, 1 August 2011

Developing Your Culture

What is the culture of your organization?

Darryl Connor (1993) defines cultures as "the beliefs, behaviours, and assumptions of an organization [that] serve as a guide to what are considered appropriate or inappropriate actions" for individuals and groups to engage in.  Culture operates at two levels: 1) overly, as apparent in policies and procedures and 2) covertly, reflected in "the way things are done".

Culture in an organization usually evolves over time.  The personalities of the leaders often determine the beliefs, behaviours, and assumptions that eventually become firmly established, although they may not be especially visible.  This results in what Connor (1993) calls a default culture.

It is much less common for leaders to consciously and deliberately establish the type of organizational culture that serves their needs.  As a result, new leaders often inherit a culture that doesn't support changes they want to make in the organization.  And they find out quickly that a non-supportive culture can be very inhospitable to a change initiative. 

If you are a leader of a new organization or project, you have the opportunity to build the type of culture you believe works best.  If you take over an existing entity, you have the harder task of assessing and changing the culture - a difficult but not impossible task. 

Regardless of which position you are in, here are some things to consider about your culture:

  • Are the values and principles explicit so that everyone understands what is valued?
  • What is the trust level in the organization?  Do people at different levels trust one another?  What do you do to make it safe for people to take risks and trust one another?
  • Are people valued as individuals, or are they thought of primarily as assets or resources?
  • Are people's hands, heads, and hearts wanted - or just their hands?
  • Is the atmosphere informal and comfortable, or is it formal and tense?
  • Are people treated equitably, or is there evidence of preferential treatment?
  • Is the environment positive, with people encouraged and recognized, or is it negative, with little or no recognition and a lot of blaming?
  • Does the organization freely share information, or is the flow of information tightly controlled?
  • Is learning from mistakes valued, or are people more likely to be fired, blamed, or reprimanded for errors or failure?
  • Is learning valued, or is it seen as a deterrent to getting the work done?
  • Is the organization committed to continuous improvement, or does it change only when there is a major problem? 

From:  Leading Every Day by Joyce Kaser, Susan Mundry, Katherine E. Stiles, & Susan Loucks-Horsley
Published by: Corwin Press


  1. Claire Hainstock1 August 2011 at 14:40

    The old adage about living in a house for a year before you change it can have some applicability here ... even if we do not have the luxury of a year. When you come into a new situation, the best approach is to be a listener as often as possible. Typically, there is a component of the group who will be sympathetic or open to your way of thinking. You will never likely have 100% of the group totally onside with you views. By observing and listening, you have a much better chance of understanding the existing culture and planning out what you have to do to effective the changes you want.

  2. Claire Hainstock1 August 2011 at 14:43

    The old adage about living in a house for a year before you change it can have some applicability here ... even if we do not have the luxury of a year. When you come into a new situation, the best approach is to be a listener as often as possible. Typically, there is a component of the group who will be sympathetic or open to your way of thinking. You will never likely have 100% of the group totally onside with you views. By observing and listening, you have a much better chance of understanding the existing culture and planning out what you have to do to effect the changes you want.

  3. It would be unrealistic - even counterproductive - to come in to a new school/situation and expect to overhaul an established culture. It's for this reason that out-going and in-coming principals meet prior to the beginning of the new school year or change in leadership. I agree that at that point the best thing the new leader can do is listen. It takes a substantial amount of time to truly develop a lasting and effective culture. To not take the time to gain the necessary understanding of the culture would make developing one even more difficult.
    My current principal made a point of stating that in no uncertain terms were they going to come in and change everything. They did however mention that they would not sit idly by either and that they had many things to contribute as well. This, at the same time, gave credibility to the work that had been done up to that point and let us know that they had much to contribute moving forward. Both very powerful in their own right.

  4. Reading this article, I think of our own organization on the macro (YRDSB) level and also on the micro (individual school) level. I think that the "values and principles" of our organization are explicit and evident in every policy and procedure, and, in my experience, in every department. Equity, the value of learning and the expectation of continuous improvement are all foundational to YRDSB. I believe that when administrators and in-school leaders believe themselves to be the voice and image of those foundational values and principles, that's when they stand the greatest chance of success.

    In every article or book I've read on the topic of Leadership, it is clear that trust plays a pivotal role - if the leader is not trusting and trustworthy, "things [can easily] fall apart". If the entire organization is trusting and trustworthy, it is likely that individual leaders making up the organization will model themselves on the established principles and values, and will in turn, perpetuate the image. As leaders, I think we need to work on "effect[ing]" change at the school level to ensure that that culture existing there mirrors the Board culture. The challenge is to ensure that any changes we want to implement include our personal preferences and ideals, but for the most part are changes that bring about greater alignment with Board culture.

  5. "Is the environment positive, with people encouraged and recognized, or is it negative, with little or no recognition and a lot of blaming?" Trust! When a leader walks into an already existing culture that is negative, any hopes for change would have to begin with trust! Trust that those who have lived in this kind of negative culture are currently in a lot of pain and are unsure of themselves and their environment! Action on the part of the leader that can develop an authentic trust among the staff that there is commitment to an honest shift toward building a positive culture is the way to begin!
    Does the organization freely share information, or is the flow of information tightly controlled? Transparency! As a leader, do not make any one or two people a confidante! Eyes are always watching and in the absence of information, others will insert the unknown with untruths! To avoid a growing culture of gossip and assumptions, be transparent to all and - unless you work with a V.P., do not make one or two staff members privy to information that you would not share with the entire staff! This will create a default culture where beliefs are developed based on the behaviour of the leader! Trust builds a culture of positive values and behaviours that demonstrate belonging! Transparency builds trust in you as a leader that there is no preferential treatment and that each member has equal value!
    Trust and Transparency can help to build a lasting culture that shares the values and beliefs of a school,a community!

  6. @ Lynne and Daniella. I couldn't agree more re: trust. One of our superintendents used the phrase, 'Education at the speed of trust'. Can you imagine? People at a meeting open to new ideas. Feeling free to question and voice dissent that might prevent missteps. Reasonable risk taking in innovative practice. Research to understand more deeply or discover the new... rather than to give authority and weight to already entrenched beliefs. Saying 'good morning' and really meaning it.
    It takes time to establish these relationships, particularly as the next round of admin shuffles tends to sit in the background. I think I know why we do it. I know its necessities. Still, trust tends to be the collateral damage. Leadership needs to become more aware of how to build trust quickly and effectively. Some of the suggestions above, like transparency, are certainly part of the solution - as is the explicit valuing of 'trust' at all levels of the organization.

  7. I agree with Lynne's post that the school leaders need to be the voice and connection to the Board's culture as is evident in the implementation of our evolving Policies and Proceedures. A school culture will encompass many aspects of the community, parents, student's strengths and needs and the staff experiences and personalities. A new leader will need to assess all of these components and learn to work with the school's existing culture while also promoting and supported necessary change that will increase alignment with the Board's culture, vision and mission. Leaders need to build the essential relationships with all stakeholders to gain the trust necessary for a clear understanding of the school's unique existing culture and to determine the areas for needed change. A well planned path (SIP) will need to be developed collaboratively with stakeholders so that it reflects the school's needs and identifies the supports and timelines for improvement. If the culture of the school is both collaborative and focused on improving student achievement, any changes will be accepted and implemented with greater understanding and ownership. A leader's greatest challenge is having a strong understanding of the existing school culture and then having a plan to support the necessary changes for improvement that align with the Board's plan. Ideally the changes will seamlessly and painlessly become part of the school's culture.

  8. And ... you're probably already aware of this, but just in case not, a resource was released by the LNS on leadership that might help with this

  9. Christopher Hilmer3 August 2011 at 07:39

    The olde adage of "walk the walk, and talk the talk" applies here. Leaders must bot only model the culture that they want the organization to show; they must communicate it at every opportunity.

  10. Building a School Culture
    There were a few things that jumped out at me regarding school culture. The first was the idea of valuing people’s minds, their ideas. One of the previous posts spoke of leadership and I stated that I was in favour of a different kind of leadership, one from the bottom-up. I think that people’s ideas and minds have to be recognized in a school, whether they arise from the principal, teacher, EA, caretaker, secretary, parent or student. Leadership exists at all levels. Valuing input at all levels builds for a positive school culture, and allows for people to feel safe to share an idea, which was also alluded to in today’s post.
    Secondly, the idea of learning is very important in a school. If the adults in the building aren’t learning with the students, then the purpose of a school is moot. How do we motivate all adults in the building to learn? I think the way to do so is to create a community of sharing of information. At my school I began an experiment whereby I would send out an article related to education on a hot topic on a monthly basis. The results of this tiny endeavour were astronomical. I had teachers emailing me, stopping me in the halls to chat about the topic. Some teachers began sending out articles of their own. I still send out articles, and many teachers have told me they read every one. This is something that can be done in any school to encourage continuous professional development.

  11. @Claire,
    I do understand what you're saying about 'living in a house for a year before you change it' and in my experience most administrators I have worked with took this approach - listening for the first year - or the better part of it - before making any significant changes.

    However, I have also worked with a school where the principal had to take action immediately. The article speaks to "new leaders inheriting a culture that doesn't support change they want to make." In the case I'm thinking about, a new P was assigned to a school where the staff had worked together for many years. Previous admnistrators had a shared leadership approach that meant the staff made all the decisions - if they didn't want to participate in a board initiative - they didn't need to. If they didn't want to hand in long-range plans - it was their decision, etc. In the end, the culture of the school was one where teachers were making programming decisions based on what they would like to see happen - not on assessment information, data or what was best for students in terms of their academic achievement. The staff had fairly low expectations of their students and their instructional practices showed this.

    The new P felt he couldn't wait a year to make changes - he had to insist teachers hand in long-range plans, use assessment information to inform their instruction and wouldn't accept the low standards the teachers had set for their students. Ordering stacks of workbooks for students to complete for the majority of their day and planning activities that were 'fun' but had no connection to the curriculum was no longer accepted.

    There was resistance and a lot of phone calls were made to ETFO that first year. He was open to dialogue and collaboration but the staff felt that they had been 'running the school' fine and didn't need to change anything. The first teacher moderation session he scheduled was a very quiet one as teachers brought very little student work with them and had little or nothing to say. They felt that if they waited long enough he would give up and things would go back to how they were. Well, he didn't give up and I can say that three years later the culture of the school has changed significantly. Teachers are using assessment data, they are attending professional learning opportunities willingly and they are sharing their learning with the rest of the staff. There is still an atmosphere of collegiality but also collaboration on behalf of the students and their staff. Classroom instruction has shifted significantly as well. He has managed to foster a culture of mutual respect, teamwork and high expectations for students and staff.

    If I asked the P whether or not he felt he moved too quickly too soon, I'm pretty sure he would say no. He was hearing and seeing too many things that challenged his values and beliefs that he had to act early.

    I think this situation is the exception rather than the rule but I feel there are times where the school culture is getting in the way of student achievement and well-being and therefore changes need to be made sooner rather than later.

  12. Athena Loopstra4 August 2011 at 05:28

    Nadia, your story about a P that was aggressive in changing school culture illustrates a few things. 1) Sometimes it is vital for students that the culture of the school be changed 2)It takes courage and a thick skin to be the leader of the change (the complaints, resistance and calls to ETFO did not stop this principal) and 3)Sometimes the change in culture occurrs because teachers have been "forced" to make action changes. I'm sure that this third point will provoke some thought because ideally we would like the change in culture of the staff to develop instrinsically and without a "thou must" approach, however, I have seen that sometimes the change occurs once the teachers experience the benefits of the forced changes in action. For example, Nadia wrote of the first teacher moderation session where teachers were hesistant. I am assuming that after a few session of moderation, the teachers saw the benefits, both for themselves and their students, and therefore were motivated to continue.

    Again, I return to a question that I have asked earlier, which is how much time is necessary for a leader to create lasting change. The principal about whom Nadia wrote was at his school for three years (thus far?)and has seen a change in the culture of the school. I wonder if this change is sustainable, or is it dependant upon the personality of the principal? What would happen if there was a change in admin in the next year or two?

  13. I want to go back to something that Daniella said - that, "in the absence of information, others will insert the unknown with untruths." I think most teachers can (unfortunately) relate to this happening in their own schools. Being transparent is an excellent "tool" in combating this from happening and festering to the point that school culture is adversely effected. Ultimately, the P has to have their finger on the pulse of the school and, like it or not, there always is the one or two "go-to" people on staff that they can go to in order to gain the staff's perspective. As many others have pointed out though, these go-to people cannot become seen as the confidante of the P or that they somehow are privy to things others aren't. The function of the conversation should be only to gain perspective, then plan how they can address it in a purposeful way.

  14. Interesting conversation here regarding the time it takes to change a school culture. There were many comments around the idea of waiting and watching before changing. At the same time, I have been following some tweets coming out of the Vermont Leadership Academy the last few days. Todd Whittaker presented and according to him: "The right leader will change the culture quickly and permanently as long as the right person is leader." (tweet by @fliegs, #vla11)

    I think that this is very possible to do right away. I thought it was interesting that he mentioned not to bring the negative teacher to the first school meeting on change. Wonder how possible that is in a real context. He also mentioned the importance of connecting with other staff in an emotional way, establishing positive relations.

  15. @Athena,
    You asked about the teacher moderation sessions now - there was a marked difference in them last year. Teachers were openly discussing their student work and reflecting on their teaching practice. The P has just finished his third year there in June. I'm not saying it's perfect - but the change is obvious. Also, teachers understand now that the processes the P has put in place were not meant to criticize them as teachers but to support students and their families. He has always been supportive of them and taken the stance as co-learner where he would admit he didn't have all the answers but was willing to find them together with the staff.
    You commented about hoping that the culture would change intrinsically but in this case the actions changed the culture. This reminds me of a quote from Fullan: "Behaviour changes attitude"....I think that's how it goes. Basically, we can't always wait for people's attitudes and beliefs to change - changing the way we behave can lead to these changes to occur.

  16. It has always been a question for me as to why the Board moves VP's and P's so frequently when compared to other educational orginizations. For example, when I was in England a number of years ago visiting schools, I noticed it was common for a Pricipal (Headmaster) to be promoted from within the school and to remain in the Principal position in the same school for 8 to 10+ years. Connor's comment about a "default culture" reminded me of this and suggests the frequent moves may allow the school to develop a culture independant of the principal. An interesting question: when is this good/bad for the school? We all know of the superprincipal (Whittaker = the right leader) who singlehandedly drives the school regardless of the existing culture.

    The commenmts of several people around trust and transparency are essential fundamental. As a leader we must create systemic trust through consistant application of known values, transparency of application, encouraging questioning and discussion and collaboration, allowing others to lead and by frequently valuing/celebrating the skills/decisions of others.

    Most of us are not supermen/women and so need to constantly, visibly, demonstrate the expected cultural norms for the organization.

  17. @Athena and @Nadia! Excellent observations made about change that happens too fast! I have lived that and, yes, ETFO was called in and teachers were up in arms and there was chaos and confusion! Why the fuss? The culture of apathy and negativity could not be given the TIME required for a changing culture! The leadership saw what was missing and what was needed and met the needs head on! Why entertain a negative culture? It's not good for the children, staff or parent community! It's just not acceptable! Thick skin? Self confidence? Determination? It'a all part of being an effective Leader!

  18. Looking at many of the comments so far, and I think back to an earlier post about Change as a Process. The balance between building trust and making change the process vs. the need to make a change which sometimes must be an event. We agree that we need trust, we need time to build that trust, but at what point must you make that change event happen, and then build trust from there on in? Can it be a "We need to do this... trust me and give me the benefit of the doubt. This is in the best interest of the kids." Start small, aim for success and build the trust upon that change event. Then the next time you "ask" aim for a higher target (but not too high!)

    -K. Ko

  19. If we look at the scenario of an incoming P (ie. new to the school), I'm wondering if an approach would work where the P asks staff to identify what they feel are the 1 or 2 areas they must stay the course with, and then the P would introduce 1 or 2 new initiatives. In this way they would be honouring current culture and at the same time setting the tone that the process of change is inevitable...and a good thing.

  20. Athena Loopstra5 August 2011 at 15:32

    I agree that behavior can change attitude. I saw this first hand when a teacher at the school was extremely negative and pessimistic attitude towards an assessment tool that was being introduced at the school. This teacher was expected to use this tool and it took several months for her to see the benefits of the tool. Once she saw how the tool gave her insight into her students, helped with assessment and planning, then she completely changed her song! If the leadership team had waited for her to support the initiative it would have taken significantly longer to implement. By mandating the use of this tool, it changed teacher action, which resulted in eventual changed attitude.

  21. May I bring us back to the initial definition of culture: "the beliefs, behaviours, and assumptions of an organization [that] serve as a guide to what are considered appropriate or inappropriate actions..."

    If the culture is made up of beliefs, behaviours, and assumptions....that serve as a guide.....then this fits beautifully with the previous week's post about shared vision.

    My sense of this week's post is that it speaks more to some very fundamental values, beliefs, and assumptions, and less so to specific behaviours or actions by any particular individual. For example, I believe a leader can engage staff in a process to create a shared vision by co-creating the culture. I would envision such things as: the needs of our students always come first; we are here to serve the needs of our students; our students and their families are some of our greatest resources; we, as the staff, have the knowledge,skills, and commitment to educate every child in our school, etc., etc. ......

    Some food for thought for my fellow readers....

  22. "Is the environment positive, with people encouraged and recognized, or is it negative, with little or no recognition and a lot of blaming?"
    Since the beginning of my teaching career I have always heard the following words: "the principal sets the tone for the school". I have always believed this to be true. The leader is happy, positive and forward thinking and the teachers and staff feel secure and cared for. The energy spreads from the top, down. The principal has the power to develop the culture in the school simply by his/her actions, words and attitude! A culture of positiveness,happiness, acceptance, learning, compassion can easily be planted and nurtured by the choices made by the principal in the school. BE the change you want to see!

  23. Athena loopstra6 August 2011 at 05:54

    Attitude can be contagious, and a leader with a positive attitude can have tremendous impact upon staff. From my experiences and observations, this attitude cannot be faked or forced. Staff can sense when an attitude is just for show and react accordingly. One of the greatest administrators that I have worked for had such a genuine and strong passion for her own learning that the staff all eagerly participated in PD sessions and many actively sought out their own learning opportunities. The leader was a role model in both action and attitude, and because it was authentic she had a tremendous impact upon others.

  24. I agree that a leader with a genuine positive attitude can make a huge difference. Dewitt Jones says "Celebrate what's right with the world" - taking this stance as a leader means always looking for the strengths to build on. This can help with the process that "Anonymous" suggests around creating a shared vision by co-constructing a culture.

  25. This week's discussion is very passionate! Since we're already pretty much at the end of the discussion period for this selection, I would just like to repeat that, as leaders in a well-established, world-renowned organization with a clear (and very positive) culture, it behooves each of us, as leaders or potential/aspiring leaders to make every effort to see beyond individual situations to the big picture. As members of this organization we are its face and voice and everything we do, say, share, implement or engage in should not just align with, but also perpetuate at the micro level, its ideals. Many leadership articles, including this one, are based in the business world and while we can learn so much from these models, we also need to be cognizant of the differences between that world and ours. I'm also aware of the differences between a Canadian and and American point of view. I know I often sound like a broken record to friends and colleagues when I keep repeating that we do it differently in York Region. At the very big picture level, I pride myself on the fact that I am a small part of an organization that, in terms of the established culture, embodies what it means to be Canadian and that's why I feel so strongly about the importance of perpetuating the mission, vision and values. We've also had the luxury for many years now of a Ministry that is not only extremely supportive of educators in general, but that has provided the necessary pressure and support to grow and change in support of student achievment. Jan mentioned the L&NS monograph on Leadership and I would suggest that all of those monographs, available on the Ministry website, provide support for leaders right across the curriculum. I look forward to next week's article and all the excellent disucssion. Thanks!

  26. Claire Hainstock7 August 2011 at 08:03

    @ Nadia R. Interesting. Your description sounds like the one used in the book, the Fourth Way (Hargreaves and Shirley)to describe the transition period between "The First and Second Way." Here the teachers/school were protected from some of the downward flow of change.

    I use the word "protected" intentionally as one of the definitions of a good manager is one who shields his or her staff from the constant bombardment of issues and changes in philosophy that are given from on high.

    However, it does make one wonder that in a system that is supposed to be rowing together, there is still plenty of room to row a little less aggressively and sometimes not at all!

  27. Cutlure of an educational institution is like the personality of a person, in which trust level is a key for a person and institution to function at the best level. When a new P makes new changes at the school level, I think the changes should be done in the "cultural" way of the school at the beginning. Through conversations, brain storming and relationship building based on trust, changes will be implemented. Culture is also dynamic. As someone said here before, that culture is also dynamic. Culture of a board / school changes over time, and changes corresponds to social and demographic factors.

  28. "If the culture is made up of beliefs, behaviours, and assumptions....that serve as a guide.....then this fits beautifully with the previous week's post about shared vision."
    Culture is really about building on a common vision and noting how this is expressed through people's beliefs, behaviors and assumptions.
    My first six months as an administrator were spent looking at the LC 13 parameters in order to both gauge where the staff was with their feelings/understandings of these basic truths of what makes up an effective school and also to note what we needed to take from these to improve our school and culture.
    As time goes on (three years later) we still at times, struggle with the "airing of varying beliefs or the demonstration of behaviour or assumptions that run contrary to our articulated shared beliefs". Although we all agreed in principle that all students and staff can achieve at a high level if given the proper time and support...some staff's behaviour has at time indicated otherwise. These are challenges to the culture that we need to respectfully surface and discuss again and again. Doing this in a way that is both respectful and productive can at times be challenging. However when we continually bring people (ourselves as leaders as well) back to these core beliefs and compare them (respectfully) to the behaviour and assumptions that people make we can start to change culture on a much deeper level. The one thing I have learned is that we never really move on. We have to constantly spiral back and contextualize what we are doing and restate clearly why we are doing it. The real second order change both in practice and in culture will only occur with deep understanding and genuine belief in what we are doing as educators and as an educational institution.

  29. The other area of establishing culture that is productive is the area of trust. Being a single administrator it is sometimes very challenging not to rely heavily on your leadership team members to assist in implementing new ideas but also in terms of bouncing ideas off of them. Although our leadership (we actually call it the learning and leadership team) is open to anyone who wants to attend, the team does tend to be static. I have encouraged new members and we have a couple of new members this year (who have been active dissenters in the past) however the core of the group tends to stay the same. These people do the brunt of the work in terms of PD etc. As much as I am visible, I do walk the halls and I make a concerted effort to talk to the staff who are not happy as much as I possibly can, some staff still perceive the team as the "inner circle". This is a very difficult perception to get around. Without this team however, the school would not move forward. I would simply be putting out fires with no time to move forward.
    I continue to try to include as many people as possible either formally or informally however it is very difficult to involve everyone when some staff are clearly not interested or are not able to participate at this more enhanced level.
    One way that I am hoping to "get around this" has been to partner with another single admin school administrator. We are able to bounce ideas off each other, talk about things that are not appropriate for teachers to hear about and we have combined our learning and leadership teams and they work with us together to work on PD initiatives common to both schools which are similar in terms of our data and demographics.

  30. A culture of trust and respect is extremely important in any work place. An organization's need to be forward thinking and following a vision often will cause some discomfort in the process of change. A leader's role must be to guage the needed change, test the climate and existing culture, conference and be collaborative in practises, create a plan for moving to the next step and working to support the staff to meet the requirements for the needed growth. The culture may be resistant but with the right amount of time and support, there can be positive change. It is our expected role to follow and promote the vision and to encourage a culture that is centered around best practises for our students and school communities.