Organizational culture seems like a simple concept at first glance. Putting words on paper, talking about concepts, and pronouncing to the world that this is who we are and what we will do—all these can start an organizations campaign on the right track, but as time goes on and the day-to-day grind ensues, an organization’s culture is what counts. Culture can become the thing that propels your organization to success or crushes it out of existence.
I have been a public school educator for over 20 years, with 15 of those years spent in a leadership capacity. During this time I have had the privilege of leading my own school as well as coaching schools across the nation, which has allowed me to see firsthand how culture can be the key component to schools finding success in serving students and families or failing them.
When I work with leaders and their teams around change initiatives, culture always comes up. I see those teams that understand the nuances around culture and develop strategies to adapt and change as needed experience the most success in overcoming short-term obstacles or long-term change. I also see those teams that refuse to respond to feedback from stakeholders fall apart and become a very toxic and hard place for teachers and staff to work in and for families to feel secure when it comes to trusting them with their children’s wellbeing.
It has also been very evident to me that the concept of school culture is not so different from that of church culture. Both of these structures serve people, and the organizational culture of a church or school typically takes on the values of those people being served, whether the leadership is aware of this or not.
“The organizational culture of a church or school typically takes on the values of those people being served, whether the leadership is aware of this or not.”
As I have coached leadership teams and organizations in having healthy organizational culture, I encourage them to build in accountability checks on three key areas: self-awareness, core values, and climate checks.
Self-Awareness is one of the most critical components of any organization because we all run the risk of getting lost in our own work. One of the most common mistakes I have seen leaders and leadership teams make is one of the easiest to correct. Often, leadership teams are so engrossed in the work being done that they can fail to communicate the purpose of an initiative to the rest of the organization. The initiative makes sense to the leaders because they are the ones designing it, but the entire organization needs to know the thinking and reasoning behind decisions for buy-in to be more efficient. This can often show up with staff turnover if an effective onboarding process is not present. New hires will not know why certain things are done certain ways and organizational procedures can be sabotaged unintentionally. Likewise, new staff asking why certain things are done certain ways can also help the efficiency of procedures from time to time.
In my coaching, I encourage leadership teams to adopt two types of surveys. The first survey is a self-check. I encourage the leadership team to evaluate their purpose in the organization once a year. During this survey, the people I am coaching can reflect on the achievement of personal goals connected to the organization, review a personal journal from the year, reflect on feedback from supervisors, or use any other tool that makes sense to the leader or group I am coaching. The most important part of this survey is the leader realizing that they are part of a larger organization and that their actions can influence that organization in positive and negative ways. Being self-aware helps leaders understand how words, jokes, body language, attendance at meetings, doing work outside the job description, and numerous other actions create undercurrents in the organization that can impact the culture in a positive or negative way.
“Being self-aware helps leaders understand how words, jokes, body language, attendance at meetings, doing work outside the job description, and numerous other actions create undercurrents in the organization that can impact the culture in a positive or negative way.”
The second survey is an evaluation of organizational goals. This survey has to take the form of some type of data-driven document but has to fit the needs of the group. Sometimes goals are related to finances, product movement, or other tangible items. Other times, goals are related to personnel perceptions, stakeholder feedback, or other non-tangible things. I typically recommend that teams seek feedback in both areas as this type of data analysis provides a more robust understanding of the overall health of an organization. This type of survey provides trend data that can be compared to prior years in similar areas, allowing the organization to make more informed decisions on future initiatives.
The most crucial step with both of these surveys is how the organization decides to respond to the data gained. As it relates to organizational culture, data-based decisions from both types of surveys can help with choices around existing or new initiatives, effectiveness of specific departments or groups, and impact of leaders throughout the organization.
Core values must drive the organization. Without these, the organization has no reason to exist and has no real way to move anything forward. Organizations without clear core values usually experience high levels of toxicity and confusion, simply because no one knows what they are doing or why they are doing it. I encourage the teams I work with to think of their core values in three key areas: mission, vision, and values. The mission is what your organization is. Effective mission statements capture your daily reality, usually include values, and let everyone know why your organization exists. A vision statement shares your organization’s goals and identify where you are heading. Values identify your organization’s collective commitments for team members.
The first step for an organization is to develop all three of these items. Once in place, I encourage teams to develop a schedule where active feedback can be provided on all areas at least three times a year. The reason that this is important is that members need to be reminded of the organization’s agreed-on purpose frequently to avoid organizational drift which can lead to organizational failure in any area. I usually suggest these feedback sessions be built into existing meetings led by one of the key leaders in the organization. These meetings usually become a great opportunity for dialogue around the core tenets that make people want to be part of the organization.
“These meetings usually become a great opportunity for dialogue around the core tenets that make people want to be part of the organization.”
Specifically related to culture, the core values drive the daily actions that become the routines that build the culture of the organization. When organizations begin to experience decline in any area, it can usually be traced back to a lack of understanding related to the core values that drive the work.
The final area in which I work with teams is on periodically checking their climate. What is an organization’s climate? To answer, it’s important to draw a distinction between climate (which is easier to change) and culture (which is slowly changed by climate over time). These two concepts are sometimes presented as being interchangeable, but they are not. They are distinctly different things that do impact one another but do not mean the same thing to an organization’s health. The chart below demonstrates the differences between culture and climate:
|is the group’s personality||is the group’s attitude|
|gives Mondays permission to be miserable||differs from Monday to Friday, February to May|
|provides for a limited way of thinking||creates a state of mind|
|takes years to evolve||is easy to change|
|is based on values and beliefs||is based on perceptions|
|can’t be felt, even by group members||can be felt when you enter a room|
|is part of us||surrounds us|
|is “the way we do things around here”||is “the way we feel around here”|
|determines whether or not improvement is possible||is the first thing that improves when positive change is made|
*taken from School Culture Rewired: How to Define, Assess, and Transform it
As the chart suggests, the two terms are easily mixed up because there are so many similarities. However, the best way I have been able to help teams understand the difference is that climate is like the thermostat in your home. It can be turned up or down depending on the season and can be adjusted quickly with quick action. Culture is like your home itself and does not change without long term project planning, thought, and effort. It is true that climate can change the culture, but this typically involves a long amount of time with little to no visible change occurring. This tendency for climate to slowly change culture is why it is important for an organization to have frequent climate checks built into regular routine.
“This tendency for climate to slowly change culture is why it is important for an organization to have frequent climate checks built into regular routine.”
The most fruitful strategy I have used to help teams build a positive climate is to build in frequent and purposeful celebrations. This seems like a simple concept, but I have learned that adults get so busy we sometimes forget the importance of celebration. Celebrations can be big or little, but the most important component is the intentionality of the celebration. Group praise has its place, but nothing will build a positive culture more quickly than specific, individualized celebration of individuals. Frequency can vary, but making celebration an intentional part of your culture will make your organization a place people want to be.
An organization’s culture can be complex, but understanding the nuances of the different groups and personalities people may take on in an organization can help leaders to understand how to manage and navigate changes that may need to occur. Focusing on self-awareness, core values, and climate will help leaders and teams ensure organizational culture is healthy and sustainable over time.