We talk a lot about culture. We know that it can be a determining factor in the success of any organization, including schools. We hear terms like “good cultures” and “bad cultures,” “strong cultures” and “weak cultures,” and “toxic cultures” and “healthy cultures.” What do we mean? What are the crucial components shared by healthy, productive cultures?
It can be helpful to think about cultures as comprised of building components, much like a physical structure. At the base we find characteristics that provide supports for higher, more impactful components of healthy and productive cultures. Let’s explore five crucial elements for developing a positive, impactful culture and how each might be described by people who are experiencing each one.
The foundation of a healthy culture can be found in relationships. People feel accepted and respected. They feel as though they are a part of the organization. Relationships may extend beyond work to become friendships. While there may be conflicts, they tend to center around ideas and strategies rather than personalities and politics. Often, they resolve without grudges or resentment. Open communication extends throughout the organization.
In organizations that have a strong relational culture, people say:
- This is a warm and friendly place.
- I feel respected and heard.
- I am not afraid to disagree if I feel strongly about an issue or decision.
- I enjoy the people with whom I work. Some of them even have become my friends.
At the collaborative level, relationships extend beyond feeling respected and valued. Shared knowledge and experiences inform and benefit colleagues and the organization. People feel trusted enough to share their ideas and insights and feel safe enough to be vulnerable. They can admit they do not have every answer, without fear of shame and criticism. People frequently work in teams to perform tasks, solve problems, plan, and improve processes.
In organizations that have moved to the level of a collaborative culture, people say:
- I feel my expertise is valued and respected.
- I don’t always have to act as if I have all the answers.
- I can ask for help without worrying about what others may think of me.
- I have opportunities to work with colleagues on important projects, problems, and processes.
Supporting Walls: Shared Purpose
The search for and feelings of shared purpose rest firmly on the first two components. Shared purpose makes relationships more meaningful and collaboration more productive. Shared purpose drives decisions and keeps the values of the organization constantly in play. Shared purpose generates a sense of integrity and significance in the work. Goals become clearer, more transparent, and influential in daily and ongoing activities and initiatives. Celebrations lift the purpose of the organization and honor the people and work that move the organization ever closer to achieving its purpose.
In organizations with a strong sense of purpose, people say:
- I feel like the work we do here is important and worth the effort.
- I appreciate that everyone is committed to doing our best work in service of our purpose.
- I like the clarity and consistency with which goals are set and decisions are made.
- Our celebrations feel authentic and meaningful.
Roof: Shared Accountability
The fourth level expands the focus of the work and achievement of the organizational purpose to include shared responsibility. People hold themselves and each other responsible for doing their best work, achieve shared goals, and make a shared difference. Accountability is based on promises people make to themselves and each other rather than relying on external monitoring, measurement, and metrics.
When people experience a culture of shared accountability, they are likely to say:
- I feel great responsibility to do my best and to not stop learning and trying until we are successful.
- I am confident that my colleagues share my commitment to our work and purpose.
- We know that when we work together there is not a problem that we cannot solve or challenge we cannot meet.
- We worry little about state-informed and other accountability measures because our standards are much higher than others would establish for us.
Upgrades: Renewal and Innovation
People who are a part of cultures that have reached this level resist feeling satisfied or comfortable. They continue to reflect, challenge, and push themselves. Not only do they search for ways to improve current practices and processes, but they also look for opportunities to innovate, redesign, and reimagine even better work. They fear lethargy and staleness. They are quick to share, model, and mentor others who aspire to reach this level of culture and performance.
People in cultures that have reached the level of innovation and renewal are likely to say:
- I feel as though we have come a long way, but we are far from finished.
- I constantly look for new ideas, better strategies, and even more effective approaches.
- We often ask ourselves whether there are better approaches, more effective designs, and innovative perspectives that we can adopt and develop to move to an even higher level of performance.
- We are eager to share our knowledge and experience with others who are on journeys like ours.
As noted earlier, each component of culture builds upon the one below it and expands its impact. With weak interpersonal relationships and collaboration, other levels weaken and can even collapse. The challenge for leaders is to build from the bottom, but constantly monitor cultural health at all five levels.