Culture comprises the values and assumptions that shape an academic unit’s behavior, including its performance. Culture can be tricky to identify, or change, because much of it is unstated and tacit; it’s “just the way things are.” As such, transforming an unhealthy academic culture can be a leadership challenge.
Behaviors that reflect the underlying values of an academic unit’s culture include people’s attitudes toward their work, how individual members of the unit communicate and interact with each other, and the levels of commitment they have toward scholarship, teaching and service. These and other aspects of academic organizational culture can make the difference between a high-performing, collegial unit, and one riven by factions, rivalries or unproductive friction.
In this column, we address several fundamental aspects of organizational culture: 1) the need to identify what is at the root of the current organizational culture, 2) the need to understand what culture shift is sought and 3) the leader’s role in culture change. A leader does not control the attitudes or behavior of unit members and therefore does not control culture. What a leader can do is to identify productive and unproductive aspects of a unit’s culture — and set expectations and standards for the conduct of others that affect collective behavior.
Understanding the Elements of Culture
Acknowledging the need for change is the first step in cultural transformation. One aspect of an unproductive culture is an unwillingness to talk about it and/or an assumption that it cannot change. Encouraging members of a unit to talk about the negative aspects of culture in a meaningful way requires a certain level of trust in the leader and the institution. Commitment to creating a different culture takes active support and buy-in from a critical mass of unit members.
Culture does not change because it is mandated; rather, culture changes because the underlying values, and subsequently, behaviors of the unit members change. Identifying the behaviors and values that are problematic, and then specifying how those behaviors and values need to change, are what begin to create a shift in unit culture.
The Academic Unit Diagnostic Tool, or AUDiT, which we’ve described in previous columns, can be a good starting point if you want to identify the behaviors that need to change in your department or unit. As a starting point, with or without a facilitator (depending on circumstances), ask individuals in a faculty meeting to complete the AUDiT survey anonymously and then share and discuss the results. Moderate a discussion, without excuses or blame, among the group about the strengths and weaknesses identified in the unit, with the aim of building toward the strengths.
Typically, some people will claim that “things are just fine.” Others, often a majority, will acknowledge the existence of challenges — although they might differ on what causes them or what can be done to change them.
The next step is to determine the desired direction of change — the kind of culture the group wants. Discussing group expectations for managing cultural change, and how to act when those expectations are met or not, is key. Identify a set of issues that seem particularly relevant and important, then seek to stimulate discussion about specific targets or goals. What specific practices, both by individuals and by the group, can support those changes? What formal structures or processes have grown out of the existing culture and may be perpetuating it? An important part of this process is for people to acknowledge the steps they each can take to improve the unit’s culture and accept responsibility for specific changes.
For example, consider a situation in which underlying tensions are producing toxic communication practices in department meetings. Suppose there are individuals who insist on advocating for their positions while failing to listen to other viewpoints. Minor disagreements flare up into raging arguments. As a result, others may decide it is just not worth sharing their ideas and will not speak up. And still others may exchange passive-aggressive comments among themselves, bickering and gossiping about their colleagues.
By using the AUDiT and other efforts, group leaders and others can surface the fact that unit problems are not being effectively addressed or solved because communication is not constructive. A discussion about the AUDiT rankings can lead to recognizing that the perception is broadly shared, which can further encourage unit members to speak about the issue.
This recognition is only the starting point for potential change. People may identify the problem and still misidentify the sources of the problem. Or they might agree that it is a problem while expressing skepticism that it can be changed. Or they might say they would like to see it change without accepting any personal responsibility for the problem or what to do about it.
The Role of the Leader
Stimulating a positive culture shift requires thoughtful and dedicated leadership. The behavior of a leader, and the willingness of faculty members to work with that person, are crucial to the outcome of any effort to transform an unhealthy unit culture and to maintain and grow elements of a vibrant culture. Leaders, not only those with titles but also those who are opinion leaders among their colleagues, can have a significant impact on positive cultural change in how they make and carry out their own choices.
As a leader, you should:
Model respect. Toxic cultures are often characterized by caustic interactions among members of the unit that divert attention from substantive matters. Those interactions can be contagious. To counteract such dynamics, demonstrate how unit members can hold and express diverging opinions without facing derision or open ridicule.
Engage respectfully and unemotionally with all views. Although you may at times be tempted to defend your own perspective and position, do not use the authority of office to silence expressions of dissent, as long as they are germane to the topic and following the group’s wider rules or norms. Acknowledge the validity of alternative views, even criticisms, when you can.
Demonstrate integrity. Maintaining a level playing field in terms of expectations for conduct is vital for retaining respect and authority. Pervasive pitfalls include favoring one faculty member (or group) over another because of a personal connection, avoiding dealing with regulatory violations or low standards in scholarship, or failing to require adherence by some people to the same requirements others are held to.
Avoid self-serving office politics. The routine management of a department or unit requires myriad transactional arrangements, including compensation for teaching overloads, support for purchase of new lab equipment or approving consulting time. You should always handle such tasks on a principled basis, following clear procedures and criteria, so that they are seen to be in the best interests of the department — not ways to make friends or advance any personal goal. Avoid any temptation to “do deals” to gain support.
Never reward bad behavior. Every leader should guard against rewarding actions that undermine a robust, functioning organizational culture. If a faculty member speaks rudely or dismissively of others during meetings, ask for the comment to be restated or shift focus to those who are participating more productively in the conversation. Don’t engage the individual in other ways that validate the actions.
If someone is so unpleasant that it seems easier to grant a request than to endure a tirade, consider how caving rewards and reinforces the bad conduct. Cultural disrupters can be bullies who seek to “win” some desired outcome (diminished teaching load, preferential access to scarce research support, funding for travel to a conference) that would be equally beneficial to others who are less demanding. Grant requests only when it is clearly the fair and appropriate thing to do — not to grease the squeakiest wheel to avoid conflict.
Accept the responsibility of leadership. Some people take on leadership responsibilities and are then unwilling to make the sometimes tough decisions required for a unit to function. That undermines trust, commitment and sense of group membership. Even worse, it can build cynicism and fatalism about the possibility of change. Over time, it compromises respect for leadership and creates frustration in the unit that then manifests itself through an unproductive culture: from a Wild West deal-cutting environment to one in which unit members won’t share in service responsibilities because they do not believe they serve any useful value.
Define purpose. Clearly articulate why the group is doing the work they do, and examine how the culture of the unit influences its ability to effectively serve that purpose. By highlighting the unit’s purpose, leaders can evoke greater motivation and engagement from the unit members in the cultural change process. That helps build a positive culture around shared values — and is not just trying to “fix” a broken unit culture.
Culture is complex, and the decisions and actions of any single individual cannot reform it. That said, one person alone can negatively affect and damage a culture if the rest of the group is without effective recourse or tools. We have suggested here that leaders can model desired behavior and help individuals within a unit to acknowledge and address problems in order to shift the unit culture toward a desired end. We encourage leaders who want to learn from others in the processes of problem solving and cultural transformation to attend meetings like the Confronting Challenges in Academic Units conference, which our center is hosting later this month.
In sum, a leader’s primary role is to pay attention to the dynamics of unit culture; these are not always obvious or overt. A key first step is for the leader to help the group identify honestly and realistically what the unproductive behaviors and values of the culture are. The leader must then help to shape a consensus that the culture needs to change and gain buy-in from members willing to take responsibility for doing so. Leaders must set the tone by modeling the behavior they want to see and the norms the group has set as appropriate. A leader cannot avoid bad conduct and just hope it will go away — or, even worse, fall into habits that tacitly reward it.
There is no one path to a healthy unit culture. But creating and maintaining a positive and productive environment is one of the most important — and challenging — tasks of leadership. No one wants to, or should, go to work every day dreading its unpleasantness, and this unhappiness will have consequences for unit performance. The personal and collective rewards of working in a healthy, functional environment more than justify the effort it takes to recognize, call out and begin to improve a flawed unit culture.