Culture: Who do we want to be, together?

Source: @spalla67 on pixabay

I have talked with staff this week about together creating the conditions for all of us to grow as a community of learners, through fostering an environment of high support and high challenge. Our staff have been preparing for the return of students and coming together to work through the idea of organisational culture, including hearing from students about their experiences of and insights into our school culture.

We have been wondering: Who are we now, and who do we want to be and become?

Peter Drucker famously said that “Culture eats Strategy for breakfast”, implying that strategy falls flat without a positive culture that empowers and supports the people in an organisation to enact the strategy. While most would agree that culture is important in organisations, it is one of those fluid, nebulous, and slippery terms that evades clear definition. Richard Perrin defines organisational culture as “the sum of values and rituals which serve as ‘glue’ to integrate members of the organisation.” The metaphor of glue is central; culture binds individuals together as a collective. Culture is about those things we share, consciously and unconsciously. When I think about culture, those things we share, or aim to share, include:

  • Purpose – Our shared why.
  • Values – What underpins our beliefs and actions.
  • Stories and symbols – What we say about ourselves, to ourselves and to others.
  • Relationships – How and who we are with each other.
  • Behaviours – How we do things around here.
  • Language – How we talk around here.

Herb Kelleher famously said that “culture is what people do when no one is looking.” We perform culture through our presence and our actions, seen and unseen, accepted and challenged. As Lieutenant-General David Morrison’s oft-cited message goes: “The standard we walk past is the standard we accept.” We become enculturated through our immersion in a culture and our observations of how a place and its people present, interact, and operate. As a new principal to a school this year, I am at the outset of my own journey of enculturation; of absorbing, being influenced by, and being initiated into, an existing culture.

In their work on culture this week, our staff were guided by organisational psychologist Hayley Lokan, from ISC Consulting, who described culture and both intangible and palpable. She shared Robert Kreitner and Angelo Kinicki’s definition of culture as “the set of shared, taken-for-granted implicit assumptions that a group holds and that determines how it perceives, thinks about, and reacts to its various environments”. Hayley likened culture to an iceberg and challenged us to look beyond the visible aspects of culture to interrogate our deep-seated assumptions. It reminded me of one of the findings from my PhD study: that in order to change our behaviour we often need to change our beliefs. In order to shift culture we need to challenge our norms, and our accepted attitudes, beliefs, and behaviours. Story, symbols, rituals, and traditions are important markers of and continuers of culture, but we need to be honest about those things that we allow to continue that are not aligned with our moral purpose or current community. Context, as always, is Queen, and our communities and their needs change over time.

This week’s staff workshops and student panel on culture revealed insights into the school. Staff described the school’s culture as supportive, caring, welcoming, inclusive, kind, collaborative, friendly, aspirant, dedicated, proud, respectful, hard working, and with a mixture of tradition and trailblazing dynamism. Students in a panel discussion described the culture as safe, caring, close-knit, empowering, inclusive, and one in which students feel encouraged to be their best while being supported during times of difficulty. In exploratory discussions about the future of our culture, staff began to wonder about how we might elevate wellbeing, agency, and celebration of the diversity of the individual, to strengthen what is great about our culture and to grow with our community.

If we can build and maintain a culture of trust in which there is openness, honest and gracious feedback, diverse voices, varied aspirations, and a commitment to lifting each other up, we can all learn, lead, be well, and be in community with one another. We will continue to ask ourselves, our students and our wider community:

  • What about our culture do we want to keep?
  • What about our culture might we like to change or develop?
  • What are our next steps to move forward with intentionality?
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