Stop Trying To Fix Your Culture

If you’re focusing on the overall culture, you might be focusing on the wrong thing.

Focusing on changing the culture of the school is like attempting to lose weight by reading weight loss books and attending support groups while eating delicious donuts. Losing weight is an outcome of eating less calories than you burn up in a day. Diet and exercise is the lever that leads to the desired outcome. Similarly, cultural change is what you get after you and your staff tackle tough challenges like student achievement or teacher retention. The culture evolves as you continually gather your team together to do important work.

So let’s say you determine you have a culture problem. What are the “levers you need to pull” to change it? Here are a few suggestions to a few common school culture issues:


Cultural Challenge: Some staff blame students or their parents for lack of academic progress.

Lever: Build a shared vision and plan for continuous improvement based on data-driven decision making, fostering the acceptance of group goals, and setting and communicating high performance expectations.

Suggested Actions:
People often blame external forces (lack of student effort, lack of family involvement, poor past instruction) when they feel powerless to make change. “It’s not my fault my students didn’t make growth this year; their parents don’t care about education.” Creating opportunities for shared planning and providing appropriate support can empower most staff to feel confident that they can make a difference. Try these actions:

  1. Ask every person on your staff to articulate his/her short and long-term vision for the school. Gather that information and be intentional about connecting their vision to your own.
  2. Facilitate staff in articulating a collective vision for how to achieve high student achievement.
  3. Empower staff members to lead important conversations instead of you.
  4. Work with staff to create individual goal plans with identified support.
  5. Celebrate incremental achievements.

Cultural Challenge: Some staff breed hostility among other staff members.

Lever: Foster genuine trusting relationships among staff that are guided by a sense of mutual respect.

Suggested Actions:
Let’s face it: anytime you bring a group of people together, there can be multiple opportunities for conflict. Keeping your shared purpose (Why are we all here?) at the forefront of conversations and decisions can support all staff members in presuming positive intentions. This does not happen naturally for all staff members. Try these actions:

  1. Structure frequent opportunities for conversations that bring to light others motivations and intentions (storytelling, goal sharing, celebrations, etc.).
  2. Honor different perspectives (including voices of dissent) in conversations to build consensus in large and small groups.
  3. Model active listening skills and respond appropriately to differing perspectives or values to foster mutual trust and respect.

Cultural Challenge: Some staff are reluctant to collaborate with colleagues.

Lever: Promote a collaborative culture conducive to change, equitably structure the organization for success, and connect the school to its wider environment.

Suggested Actions:
Collaboration is most successful when there is trust and respect is given and received. Collaborating with others requires one to give up some of his/her power and control. Relinquishing that power and control to someone she/he doesn’t trust can feel unsafe. Planning intentional, authentic opportunities to build trust can make collaborating less risky and more rewarding. Try these actions:

  1. Strategically group staff members to monitor progress, advance shared goals, and develop quality products.
  2. Identify, equip, and place staff members in career pathway positions or intentional assignments with effective formal and informal mentoring.
  3. Implement a system to formally and informally acknowledge and celebrate individual and team academic successes.

As you implement new practices focused on collaboration, trust, and empowerment, you will find the culture in your school begin to shift. One day you just might look in the mirror and exclaim, “Wow, we are looking fine!”

If you need support implementing any of these strategies, MCESA’s School Leadership Team can help.

This article was inspired by:

Culture is Not the Culprit, Harvard Business Review https://hbr.org/2016/04/culture-is-not-the-culprit

The Leading Observation Instrument http://mcesaaz.squarespace.com/new-page

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