Managing Culture to Achieve Lasting Change

The importance of managing culture is well understood in big business, but is it too often overlooked in schools?

Why is culture important?

If you dont manage culture, it manages you.” These wise words came from the social psychologist Edgar Shein, who passed way at the start of this year. According to Shein in his seminal model, culture has three levels:

  • Artefacts – this is all the things that you can easily see or hear in the environment. It could be how staff dress, how they interact with each other or even in-jokes told in the staff room.
  • Espoused values – how members explain their actions. This is what members say is important. Many schools have a set of values that (allegedly) underpin the decisions made.
  • Underlying assumptions – these are the unconscious beliefs that influence how people think, feel and behave. This is the deepest and most important level of culture but, unfortunately, also the hardest to measure.

More recent models of organisation culture consider the visible and invisible. Vision statements, strategy documents and policies – those are visible – the way the school says it does things. The invisible is the way the school really does things – the unwritten rules, beliefs, traditions and stories.

Leading change in education (or any industry) is about improving outcomes. Better GCSE results, better punctuality, fewer exclusions, the list goes on. However, as much as wed like to, we cant simply change outcomes. To do so we need to change how staff or students behave because:

Behaviours -> Outcomes

Initiatives to change behaviours in school are plentiful, but have you noticed how many fail to have any lasting impact? Ive experienced dozens of initiatives that have been lost without a trace by the next academic year, resulting in no lasting behaviour change and certainly no impact on outcomes. The missing link leading to these failures is that the implementation failed to understand the vital role of culture in influencing behaviours. Put simply:

Culture -> Behaviours -> Outcomes

Therefore, if you want to achieve lasting behaviour change and improved outcomes, the goal is to change the culture – whether it be in the staff or student body. Unfortunately, this is not a straightforward task and requires a lot of time and energy, and I dont know about you, but Im often lacking in both.

If youre still not convinced of the importance of managing culture, try this mental exercise. Imagine a highly effective teacher moving from a school with an excellentculture to one with a toxicculture. Whats the result? That teacher is likely to remain relatively effective in relation to their new colleagues, but they will slowly but surely adopt negative behaviours from the new culture. It may be unconscious, or they might even deliberately opt for these behaviours to gain acceptance from their new colleagues.

If the opposite situation happened, an ineffective teacher would likely up their game in a positive cultural environment, adopting new habits and ways of thinking to conform and fit in. Whether we like it or not, human behaviour is heavily influenced by the environment they find themselves in.

The importance of subcultures

So far, Ive been talking about school culture as if it were a single coherent entity. In reality, schools are riddled and layered with subcultures that may compliment or aggravate each other. Different departments may have their own norms and ways of doing things, there might be a staff room gangor differences in culture between the new staff and the old guard. In the same way, your student body will have a vibrant set of subcultures, from Year 7 Minecrafters to Year 11 goths, and everything in between.

The school should have a general prevalent set of cultural norms, but each group (formal or informal) will have their own subcultures which come with their own beliefs, rituals and behaviours.

The extent to which these subcultures differ from each other and the overall culture will tell you a lot about how cohesive your school is. Having a wide range of subcultures suggests groups are operating in siloes with little meaningful communication, interaction or collaboration. Schools like this are likely to have wider internal variation in their results, so if you have a department that is performing as an outlier (better or worse), step back and consider whether it is due to significant cultural differences in the department from the rest of the school.

Changing the culture

So, youve considered the culture of your school, department or even class and youve decided something needs to change – where do you start? Firstly, timing is key. Over time there are points when culture is weaker and more open to change. These are known as leverage points.

We all instinctively know you dont attempt cultural change on a cold, dark day in the middle of January. The strongest regularly occurring leverage point is the start of the new school year in September. Staff and students come back refreshed after a break and are open to new ways of working, or at least may have forgotten some of the ingrained habits of previous academic year.

Other leverage points could include things like a change of staffing, the opening of new facilities or a significant anniversary. For example, a new headteacher is a powerful opportunity for cultural change in the staff, as would be the opening of a new sixth form block for the culture of the sixth form students.

Second, you need to identify and target your cultural leaders – the group members who have greatest influence over the culture of the group. Again, depending on what you are trying to influence, these could be staff or students. In whole school change, these influencers are often found among middle leaders, though this isnt a universal rule. You may find it useful to turn this process into a diagram, particularly with larger groups:

  1. Make a list of all the group members.
  2. Highlight the cultural leaders.
  3. Draw lines from the leaders to those group members who they are likely to influence forming a cobweb-style model.
  4. Work through identifying who the leaders are to influence the whole group.

Managing Culture

Now you need to target these leaders and relentlessly model the new desirable behaviours to them, explain to them why they are needed and send them out to do the same.

Finally, you need patience and perseverance. Cultural change is slow, like turning a tanker. Be warned that culture treats change like a virus. It mobilises its members like antibodies to attack anything foreign to it. Even when pursuing positive and well-meaning changes to a culture some staff will fight it. They may even genuinely believe they are doing it in the best interests of the group. Fighting the good fight and standing up to the dark overlords.

Change is seldom embraced because it embodies uncertainty and demands extra effort when energy is scarce and where maintaining the status quo feels safer. Leading this change will take time, energy and persistence.

You will promote what you permitso be prepared to relentlessly challenge behaviours that go against the cultural change you are pursuing. Turning a blind eye, even to a small minority, can be kryptonite to what you are trying to achieve as, ultimately, the culture is defined by the worst behaviours the leaders will tolerate.

However, if you persist you will get there and eventually achieve the lasting change that is often illusive.

Recommended Reading

If you are interested in understanding more about organisational culture, I can highly recommend the following books:

  • The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups by Daniel Coyle
  • Reconnect: Building School Culture for Meaning, Purpose, and Belonging by Doug Lemov
  • Leveraging the Impact of Culture and Climate by Steve Gruenert and Todd Whitaker
  • Legacy: What the All Blacks Can Teach Us about the Business of Life by James Kerr


Related HWRK Magazine articles on school culture:

It’s All About Culture

How Do We Shape School Culture?

What Exactly Is School Culture?


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