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Shifting Your Organization’s Culture as a Leader in Education


Having a strong organizational culture aligned with an education organization’s values and mission is critical for success. An organization’s culture has a strong influence on success because it impacts decisions made about human resources, budget, and beyond. On an individual level, culture also affects employees’ performance, productivity, and personal responses to challenges and workplace obstacles. 

While organizational culture and the success of an organization are vital in every sector, it’s critical for the education sector. Failure to align an education organization’s culture with its goals and mission leads to negative outcomes for children and their education. Below we offer a discussion of what constitutes organizational culture, indicators of healthy organizational culture, and how educational leaders can shift their culture to ensure it aligns with their organization’s mission and values.

Understanding Culture as More than a Buzzword

Influencing your organization’s culture as a leader in education requires you to have a strong understanding of what defines culture. Culture is an abstract notion that refers to the way things work in an organization. Still, that vague description offers little in the way of a useful definition, especially in terms of developing a healthy and robust culture. Edgar Schein, a respected organizational scholar, provides a more systematic way to think about culture.

Schein describes three levels of culture:

Artifacts

This refers to the aspects of an organization’s culture that you can see, touch, and smell. Artifacts, which lie closest to the surface, include things like the layout of an office, your organization’s logo, and holiday parties. When most people think of organizational culture, they think of artifacts, but this is only part of the culture.

Values & Beliefs

When you examine organizational culture at a deeper level, you find an organization’s values and beliefs, specifically those that leadership has communicated internally and externally. In education organizations, mission statements represent a substantial portion of culture. You can find more organization-specific values and beliefs that demonstrate an organization’s culture within an employee handbook, code of conduct, or other similar document. However, it is one thing to put it in the employee handbook and it is another to actually live it out within the organization.

Underlying Assumptions

Our underlying assumptions serve as the foundation of an organization’s cultures. These are the things you believe and your team believes. Influencing these assumptions is the way towards shifting your education organization’s culture. 

Next we will look at how you align the three levels of organizational culture to actual actions that you take within your organization.

Engaging with All Levels of Organizational Culture to Inspire a Shift

A misunderstanding of culture often causes leaders to only focus on one aspect of culture to shift positively. Leaders cannot simply plan a company event or get new office furniture to inspire change. The levels of culture must align, so the things you believe, the things you say you believe, and the actions you take do not contradict each other.

Simply changing employee documents, listing specific values on your website, or claiming certain values at employee meetings does not automatically make those things true. Instead, as a leader, you need to tap into each of your team members’ core beliefs, understand their underlying assumptions, and create an environment for processing those assumptions. Once you have an accurate assessment of your organization’s culture, you can better strategize to shift it.

Killing the Culture of Nice to Open Your Organization Up to Positive Change

Before shifting culture by identifying and influencing your team’s underlying assumptions, you need to examine whether your organization suffers from a culture of nice. A culture of nice refers to an organizational culture in which people do not openly disagree.

The desire to avoid confrontation is rooted in good intentions, but it’s dangerous because it creates a false reality that promotes groupthink. Honest communication and feedback are tantamount to success in any organization, so you can address a problem or issue before it festers into something more serious.

Does Your Education Organization Suffer from a Culture of Nice? 

Below we provide some questions you can use to help you recognize whether you have a culture of nice:

What happens after a team member makes a mistake? 

Do your team members avoid directly telling you when one of them makes a critical error that can impact your organization’s mission or have adverse outcomes for teachers and/or students? When your employees are unwilling to acknowledge each other’s crucial mistakes, it contributes to a culture of nice.

How long does it take you to terminate an employee? 

There comes a moment when you know that an employee is not going to succeed in your organization and you need to let him or her go. It is important to deal with that reality and terminate the employee as soon as possible, preferably within a week, or you are likely guilty of cultivating a culture of nice.

Do your team members openly talk about failures?

Getting the best outcome for students means that you and your team need to talk about mistakes and failures openly so that you can learn from them. If your team or you only focus on what is going well and don’t engage in constructive criticism, it can promote a culture of nice.

Do your team members publicly disagree with you or each other?

If you ask for feedback from your team on a critical issue related to students, and they stay silent or simply nod their heads, it’s not a good sign. Their response, or lack of response, could indicate they are uncomfortable voicing disagreement, which also shows your organization may have a culture of nice.

How to Kill a Culture of Nice

Suppose you want to shift your education organization’s culture to a place where it leads to effectiveness and productivity. In that case, you need to promote specific behavior and actions to kill a culture of nice. The following can help you cultivate an honest and forthcoming organizational culture:

Explain that kindness and honesty are not mutually exclusive. 

Many times people avoid being honest because they feel giving negative feedback or responses is unkind. This is simply not true. Your team members can be honest and kind, and you need to ensure they understand this.

Lead with your vulnerability. 

Don’t be afraid to share failures and mistakes with your team. Being vulnerable builds trust with your team members, and they will model your behavior. Encourage your team to come to you with their mistakes and failures, admit them, and discuss how to avoid repeating them in the future.

Seek out differing opinions. 

Killing the culture of nice in your education organization means you need to seek out dissent whenever possible. This demonstrates to your employees that you view conflict as an opportunity for learning, growth, and improvement, not something that needs to be squashed. You can ask for a ‘devil’s advocate’ point-of-view or why you could be wrong in a particular scenario. It would help if you also encouraged your team to challenge each other’s ideas respectfully. This healthy communication dramatically benefits the students at the receiving end of your education organization.

Tell it like it is. 

Whether relaying good news or bad news to your team, communicate your message as honestly and objectively as possible to kill the culture of nice. Don’t exaggerate about how well something is going, but also do not sugarcoat mistakes or failures. Communicating the reality of situations benefits the entire organization and allows you and your team to meet your goals more efficiently and fulfill your mission.

Influencing Organizational Culture as an Education Leader

Once you’ve determined whether you have a culture of nice and killed it, if necessary, you need to focus on shifting your education organization’s culture to a place where the three levels of culture discussed above are in alignment. Influencing culture involves creating an environment that fosters the underlying assumptions you want to drive your organizational culture. Three ways to shift the harmful or damaging underlying assumptions of your team members include:

Lead by Example

Effective leadership is difficult, if not impossible, when leaders don’t practice what they preach. As an educational leader, you must model the behaviors and underlying assumptions you want to come to fruition. You must first demonstrate the underlying assumptions you want to be deeply rooted in your team and organization before you will see a shift. Make an effort to deliberately speak and act in a way that shows your team how significant a particular value, goal, or mission is to you.

Be Consistent

Creating an environment where you can instill and strengthen underlying assumptions you want to be true means you need to be consistent with your words and actions. You solidify underlying assumptions and ensure they influence a culture shift when you act consistently. Showing consistency to your team includes things like holding regular meetings, setting goals, and setting expectations. On an individual level, you must also hold your team accountable and recognize them for a job well done. Suppose you let failures slide for some and not others, or you only acknowledge the occasional success. In that case, your inconsistency undermines your ability to effectively cement underlying assumptions about the culture you want at your education organization.

Vary Your Approach

As someone who works in the education sector, you likely know that students learn differently. Different approaches yield different results for different students. The same is true for your adult team members. It would be best to use various channels to demonstrate the basic underlying assumptions you want to cement in your organization. For example, some people do not like speaking up at team meetings or organizational meetings but will talk openly in a one-on-one situation. Others prefer anonymity. You can hold meetings, lunches, office hours, or send out a survey—to name a few approaches to connect with your team and build a foundation to shift your organization’s culture.

Assessing Your Organizational Culture

If shifting your education organization’s culture is a goal, you need to have a solid understanding of your current organizational culture. Once you know where you are starting from, it’s easier to see where you need to go. Assessing an organization’s culture and dynamic is not new; among the most common approaches is the Competing Values Framework (CVF), which companies in the education sector and beyond have used for more than three decades.

Ample research supports the use of the CVF, which helps organizations identify the underlying dimensions of culture from a societal and organizational perspective. Specifically, the CVF aligns with the four drives biologically determined in the brain: the need to bond, learn, acquire, and defend. Research about CVF is so strong that more than 10,000 organizations worldwide have used it to shape their company culture.

Why Invest in Organizational Culture? 

An education organization’s culture impacts its performance, engagement, and the extent to which it can carry out its education or student-related mission. Research shows that poor organizational culture decreases employee productivity by 40 percent, while effective and robust cultures increase productivity by approximately 20 percent. Further, organizations with positive company culture can increase employee performance by up to 30 to 40 percent.

Note of Warning: Organizational Culture Must Not Be Used as a Tool to Limit Diversity

We all gravitate toward people like us. People who look like us, come from the same places as us, went to the same schools as us, dress like us, have the same political views as us, like the same music as us, share the same religious beliefs as us, etc. It’s an undeniable part of human nature.

Alignment in those areas, however, does not make for a strong organizational culture. If your hiring process is intentionally or unintentionally screening for alignment in these areas, or if your culture is effectively jettisoning people from your organization who don’t align in the areas above through higher turnover, you’re making a common mistake. Ultimately, you’re reducing the diversity in your organization; you’ll miss out on diversity in perspective, thought, customer understanding, and problem-orientation, to name a few.

For this reason, we encourage people to hire for culture add, not culture fit. You can learn more in our blog: 4 Hiring Traps Education Employers Frequently Fall Into.

For talent sourcing or to have a personalized consulting solution customized to your unique organizational needs, click here to learn more and to request more information. Our WorkMonger team will be in touch to discuss how we can help find that remarkable candidate your organization has been looking for. We look forward to speaking with you!

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