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Tuesday, April 12, 2016

The Culture Club: Organizational Culture

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.


     “We make our house and then our house makes us.”

Winston Churchill (Weiss, p. 59)

Cultivating Culture

     Terry Deal and Allen Kennedy, authors of the groundbreaking effort Corporate Cultures, define culture simply as, “the way we do things around here.” (Deal and Kennedy, p. 4)  They contend that the beliefs of a culture are primarily shaped by what people perceive it takes to get ahead. Kenneth Blanchard claims that culture “is an organization’s personality.” (Blanchard, p. 23)

     Perception plays a major role in understanding culture and impact on the organization. One of the keys to introducing and experiencing successful change efforts hinges on the ability to adroitly maneuver amid the nuances of culture. Therefore, it is incumbent upon the school leader to monitor the pulse of the culture and orchestrate the necessary social architecture to produce a positive and constructive culture.

     You can’t do this sitting behind a desk. It takes a conscious effort to make the time to get out and interact with members of the school community. Most paperwork can often be set aside so the task of completing it does not infringe on the time when kids and staff are in the building. It’s a matter of priority. Placing people before paper will yield long term benefits. It extends your time if you end up finishing with the bureaucratic responsibilities after hours, but I can assure you that the trade off will be to your advantage. What you gain by personalizing your interactions is measurably more consistent with a leader’s commitment to a mission oriented around people and the teaching and learning process.

     Be visible. I maximize my visibility by designating certain scheduled times of the day for meeting and greeting. I make a conscious effort to observe sacred times even on those days when my appointment book is uncooperative and I’m only available for a small portion of the school day. I consider those scheduled times when everyone is on the move en masse to be critical. For instance, at the beginning and ending of school while hundreds of kids pass through the doors of the school. Lunchtime is another opportunity to interact with many people in a small amount of time. Making morning announcements provides a presence, albeit not a physical one. Don’t underestimate the opportunity to effectively exercise the morning announcements to infuse values/beliefs supporting the mission.

     Be certain that your communications aren’t slanted toward writing and speaking rather than listening. Pay attention to what people have to say. Reflective listening can enhance your relations with co-workers. This technique can prove to be a productive investment that stimulates creativity and sensitivity. Don’t underestimate silence or a simple non-verbal expression. Too many people in leadership positions feel compelled to say something, as if the failure to contribute a pearl of wisdom will be perceived as a lack of ability or authority. Research on effective teaching practices suggests the positive relationship between wait time and the quantity and quality of responses. Exercise sensitivity toward non-verbal communication. Also, listen for words that pop up on a regular basis in routine conversations with members of the school community. These words or phrases may reveal a thread within the fabric of the school’s culture. 

Communication and Culture

     The following story demonstrates the value of communication, specifically, the subtlety of language, in a culture.

     Near the end of the last school year I was selected to purchase a gift for a retiring colleague. Armed with the knowledge that he was an avid sailor I decided it would be appropriate to take the collected money and buy something from a store devoted to sailing and navigation. Because he fashioned himself an ancient mariner a sextant emerged as the logical choice. A sextant is a navigational instrument used by seafaring men long ago to plot a course with the stars.

    As soon as I stepped in the store it was apparent that the sum of money in my possession was not enough to obtain a present at such an upscale shop. Therefore, I went to a discount department store and proceeded to the sporting goods department where I asked a lady behind the counter for information about a sextant. She curled her lip, stared at me, and unleashed her reply. "Mister, we have canopy tents, we have pup tents, we have dome tents, and we have many other tents, but not SEX tents! What you do in them after you buy them is your business!"[i]

     What does this have to do with school improvement? After I recovered from this embarrassing tongue-lashing I realized the importance of the subtleties of our language. Communication is significant in human interactions, which, in turn, are central to the study of culture. Much has been written about school culture since Seymour Saranson's research spawned contributions in the field of ethnography and cultural anthropology as it applies to current school improvement efforts. Having a common language with a clear understanding of the context and meaning of our communication is an essential element of any culture. The transmission of “the way we do things around here,” to borrow Terry Deal's simplified definition of culture, relies upon verbal and nonverbal communication. This is significant because the way we “really” do things is more often shared through actions, stories, and anecdotes exchanged among members of the school community than by explanations of governing rules and information in handbooks.

     Culture embodies the basic operational parameters of the school. It involves the nature of work, the way information is managed, how people learn about norms, and the degree of compliance with these norms. The manner in which these forces interact effect virtually every area of the school. The cultural arena also serves to help shape the decision making process, informal power, influence, and status among the staff. Evidence of the values of the culture can be found in an examination of the rituals, ceremonies, heroes, and legends that are associated with the school.

[i] as told by Jane Hammond in a speech in Amarillo, Texas. 1987

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