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Monday, April 18, 2016

Cultural Effects

This is one piece of a continuing series of posts on school improvement reflecting my professional experience. I had prepared this manuscript for publication but time eluded me. The blog posts advance in time and concept in book-form beginning with the Blog post on March 21.

A Sense of Security

     Subjects in this study were divided into two groups. Members of each group were led one at a time into a small room where they were instructed to solve as many puzzles as possible in the required time. Each person was informed that there would be disconcerting noise, not music, coming from an overhead speaker. Members of the first group were apologetically told that there was nothing that could be done about the noise. Participants in the second group were assured that they could control the noise with a nearby switch. As expected, the second group (with the switch) solved many times more puzzles than the other group. The surprise however, was that nobody used the switch to adjust the noise. Just knowing it was there increased security and comfort.

     People feel comfortable within a culture when they understand the stated and unstated parameters governing behavior and expectations. The instrumental components of culture identified by Deal and Kennedy include the business of the environment, values, heroes, rites and rituals, and the cultural network. These elements are conveyed in many different ways. Communication, formal and informal, verbal and non-verbal, represents a significant determinant in shaping company culture.

     Language is central to communication. The words we choose reflect values within the school culture. There are buzz words, antiquated words, technical words, esoteric words, words that hold sacred significance within the school, words that signal red flags, and many others that reveal something about the person wielding the words.

     The frequency of the words and phrases reflect meaning. Perhaps it’s a word that the superintendent begins to sprinkle about in conversations with hopes it will later spread to the faculty lounge. Maybe it’s a word that those in authority appear to avoid using. The choices we make in expressing ourselves are revealing.

     An extension of this can be found in the tales and legends transmitted by veterans to the less experienced staff members. The authors of Change and Effectiveness in Schools, contend that two critical aspects of a school’s culture are related to the distribution of knowledge and the extent of conformity to them. (Corbett, Firestone, and Rossman, p. 8) Waterman supports this assertion by stating, “Procedure manuals might have rules, but stories have morals. The latter tend to influence thinking and action more than the former.” (Waterman, p. 269)

Through Rain, Snow, Sleet, and Hail

     Let’s look at the post office for an example. Assume that the culture of the postal service revolves around diligently adhering to the creed of delivering mail, “despite rain, snow, sleet, or hail,...” Legends emerge from stories repeated over and over about how Charlie braved ten foot drifts of snow to make sure that the people on his route received their Christmas gifts properly delivered by the post office. The scope of these stories often mirrors the values of the dominant group within the organization and has the potential to shape the development of others.

     For instance, if the general attitude within the school is negative and morale is low, then people may comment about how “old Fred is so crafty he always beats the system with his sick and personal days.” Conversely, if the climate is one which is positive and uplifting, the legend of how “that Mary sure is something, it seems like she never misses a day!” serves as an example and guide for behavior.

     Another manner in which a school communicates what it believes to be important can be found by examining available artifacts. Walk through the school where you work as if you’ve never been there before and note what you see on the bulletin boards and hallway walls. What is featured in the most prominent locations of the school? What appears to be absent from possible display? Interpret the meaning of these symbols as an anthropologist or archeologist would study cultural artifacts for clues of a society.

     On an individual level you can analyze your appointment calendar as a reflection of how you use your most valuable commodity, time. The way you spend time emits signals to those in the school community concerning value and importance. This is one method that followers use to determine what is regarded as significant and points to another cultural feature identified by Deal and Kennedy; “what it takes to get ahead around here.”[i]

     As a leader it behooves you to develop and enhance the values and meaning that support the direction the organization must take to realize it’s vision. Recognize and reward desired behaviors among individuals. Acknowledge mentors as heroes. Breed success. Create and sustain rituals and ceremonies that make the vision more comprehensible. Orchestrating these social and psychological variables is an essential responsibility.

[i] Deal, Terry and Kennedy, Allen. Corporate Cultures.

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