Nurturing the development of positive school culture is a key role for a school leader, now considered a vital focus to enable better organisations and high performance teams.
Positive, toxic, poor, nurturing – these are all prefixes to the word ‘culture’ that are used on a regular basis to describe organisations ranging from political parties, international sporting teams to government departments and schools. What is organisational culture, why is it important and how do leaders nurture, stimulate and support the development of positive, productive workplace cultures?
Dr Stephen Brown, Managing Director of the Brown Collective and global leader in the field of school leadership development and formation, has been fascinated by these questions. “I have been involved in supporting and contributing to the formation of school leaders for decades and such questions are at the heart of the work of any leadership role,” he says. Dr Brown says that an organisation’s culture is “the patterns or agreements that determine how the business operates” or simply, “how things work (or are done) around here” (McHale, S, 2020, p. 2).
How can leaders build productive, generative, workplaces such as schools? Many school leaders struggle when they try to describe elements that create a positive culture, writes Leah Shafer for the Harvard Graduate School of Education. It’s tricky to define and parsing its components can be challenging. Amid the push for tangible outcomes like higher test scores … it can be tempting to be vague or soft to prioritise, Shafter adds. Dr Brown suggests that school leaders should be obsessive about organisational culture – it is a hard and necessary part of leadership that enables performance. In their seminal work, The work of leadership, Ronald Heifetz and Donald Laurie (2001) suggest that leaders sometimes frame their work in technical terms such as the production of policy, procedures and increased compliance measures in response to an issue rather than as adaptive or cultural work.
Daniel Coyle in his 2018 book, Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups, indicates that there are three specific culture builders: building psychological safety, sharing vulnerability and establishing a shared purpose. Andrew Fuller in his 2021 occasional paper entitled, Resilient Cultures, Resilient Strategies – The CPR Approach to Wellbeing & Resilience that students, teachers, parents and the community flourish when they feel Connected, Protected and Respected (CPR).
Furthermore, Fuller notes that when such elements of a school’s culture are developed then trust levels increase and the potential for greater collaboration also rises. Siobhan McHale in her book, The Insider’s Guide to Culture Change (2020), describes for leaders four key elements of any workplace culture in the form of the Culture MAPP-mental maps (what people think and feel); patterns (ways of relating); processes (reinforcing decisions) and actions (what people do).
What skills, capabilities and dispositions do school leaders need in enhancing their effectiveness in the nurturing of positive school culture?
In working with thousands of emerging and current school leaders across Australia and globally, Dr Brown and The Brown Collective believe that the leadership of the development of positive school culture is broadly about the two Rs – Relationship and Relatedness (after Williams, D, 2005). Leaders need to facilitate, in partnership with key stakeholders’ harmonious relationships and inspire a connection with, or relatedness to, a shared purpose – a sense of belonging, engagement and opportunities to contribute.
We by our very nature live in communities and to operate effectively everyone including leaders need to contribute to social cohesion (after O’keeffe, 2011). “It’s all about the people work. I say to leaders that the best work and the hardest work you will ever do is the people work,” Dr Brown says. “Get to know your people outrageously, take time to understand their strengths, aspirations and fears. Leadership is an intensely people business. Leaders need to practise and model ostentatious listening and be confident to let silence do the heavy lifting. Simply, the more time spent modelling intense listening will show that a leader values people.” Culture is about message management, messaging about behaviours, symbols and stories. Leaders need to also display moral courage – to acknowledge and reward practices, people and activities that contribute to a positive school culture and equally challenge the ones that do not. In supporting the formation of leaders, one of the key areas of development is having difficult, necessary, tricky or professional conversations.
The other areas of development leaders want support in are delegation and change leadership, again aspects of cultural leadership. “A mantra I regularly use is ‘you build and change culture one conversation at a time’,” Dr Brown says. Leaders need to enable school environments which enhance opportunities for collaboration, curiosity and ‘chit chat’ people engaging with each other to enable exchange of information, ideas and stories (after O’Keeffe). Leaders need to master the art of storytelling, crafting a narrative that is owned and shared by others.
School leaders should be ‘first class noticers’ of culture, noticing things, looking, scanning inside and outside the schools, asking questions because the establishment, nuancing and maturation of any school’s culture is an ongoing process that will never be complete but paradoxically an aspiration that continually needs to be pursued. Leadership of culture is everyone’s business. Investing in the development of leaders is a necessary ingredient to the shared ownership and sustainability of a school’s culture. Without the engagement of such groups in schools, experience indicates that any cultural change will reach a cul-de-sac. We know that through our TBC flagship programs such as Leading from the Middle, Leading from Within and Pathways to School Leadership. The individual growth and formation of leaders and the related impact on school culture, leadership density and system contribution is palpable.