You Cannot Policy Culture

best practice organizational culture organizations policy sustainable Dec 09, 2022


Culture. It is the heartbeat of any organization – including our schools.  So how can we improve culture?  Determine what inputs generate the most efficient and sustainable outputs for success.

Culture is a word that means so many things to so many people.  It is safe to say that there are multiple layers of culture within any organization and individual.  Understanding who your team members are is just as important as understanding what they do for your school.  Why?  If educators do not have a clear understanding of who they, their students, teachers and colleagues are at their very core, it will be very difficult to incentivize optimal results and enact changes.

“Culture is consistent, observable patterns of behavior in organizations.  Aristotle said, “We are what we repeatedly do.” This view elevates repeated behavior or habits as the core of culture and deemphasizes what people feel, think or believe. It also focuses our attention on the forces that shape behavior in organizations, and so highlights an important question: are all those forces (including structure, processes, and incentives) “culture” or is culture simply the behavioral outputs?” (Source: Harvard Business Review, 2013)

Watkins provides an interesting question: Is culture dictated by the structures and process or simply by the external actions/behaviors of the people within the organization?  Or is it a unique formula of both?

One of my former roles was overseeing a number of private high schools.  We had numerous leaders who believed that even though teachers and administrators were not being paid to travel to an end-of-school celebration, they should be mandated to attend.  Let’s break this down:  The event was supposed to be a celebration.  Previously, the organization had lower attendance then they wanted.  The solution was to mandate attendance. Without pay. Having teachers drive 2-3 hours to the venue location.

What happened here?  There were emotions involved.  Executive leadership team members felt that this event was planned to honor the teachers and school leaders; they should be grateful and excited. Many of the teachers and principals simply felt this was not an honor, but a burden. Two “sides” were created and following, ensued questions and an array of emotions. Here are some solution-oriented steps that may have improved the outcome, instead of the potential decision to mandate attendance:

  1. Start by examining your motives as a leader. Why do you want to move forward with the initiative or idea you are planning?  Is it something that should be mandated?
  2. Assess who your people are.  Does this meet the needs of those you lead?  Does it enhance who they are as individuals?  Why would they be interested in being a part?  Why would they not be interested in being a part?
  3. Determine how to move forward.  After you assess why it is so imperative your team members on board with an initiative, decide how you will gain buy-in.  Without a clear plan, no matter how valuable the initiative, your people will likely feel it was forced upon them without the work of gaining support and buy-in.

Culture is. It can be in a “thrive” mode or a “survive” mode.  Your actions as a leader determine the message of value that is sent to your team members.  Remember that most intentions are good, but without buy-in, attempting to policy a culture-based initiative will likely result in mediocre outcomes and actions, potentially creating further divide within your team.



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