Is your culture change failing? Here are the 5 warning signs you are missing.


You know it matters but...

You know that culture is important and you know that you have an essential role in transforming the culture of your school. You’ve written down your vision and you have communicated it to your staff, but something just isn’t right, it just isn’t working. These are the 5 things to look out for that will help you discover why.

Your staff have stayed in their own silo

Silos are a wonderful place to store grain, but they are not conducive to cultural change. Information needs to flow between people, your staff need to know how their work affects others in your organisation and act accordingly. Leading change by diktat hides the purpose of action. If staff don’t see the purpose and how their actions are part of something bigger then they simply become a burdensome chore rather than part of the grand plan.

Behaviours haven't changed

Culture and behaviour go hand in hand, if the behaviours haven’t changed then the culture hasn’t either. However, they key thing to remember is that you can’t change their behaviour, only they can do that. If you sanction people for failing to do something you add fear into the culture and it may well create the antitheses of what you are trying to achieve.

If behaviours haven’t changed check your own. Your actions speak louder than your words, as a leader you must say  – and do – the right things. A perceived lack of commitment from you will make your staff think that this is just another phase to endure and that if they carry on as they normally do, the job will get done and the “phase” will soon be forgotten.

It may not be your behaviours that are the issue, but rather the behaviours of other leaders in your school. If leaders with a lot of “prestige” are not changing their behaviours, then despite your “power” as the head of an organisation or group your cultural change will fail. Having a conversation based around mutual support with “prestigious” leaders and getting their buy-in will go a long way to addressing this issue. 

Staff are busier than they were

Being busy is not always good. Sometimes it is an indication that infrastructure at the heart of the cultural change is a barrier to the change that you are trying to make. Culture changes should always be about benefiting your staff and the children in equal measure. If your staff are now busier trying to get everything done then the changes you have made are ineffective and unlikely to last.

Sometimes being busy is sign that you are trying to do too much too soon. Culture change doesn’t have to be rapid, unless it is responding to a “catastrophic event” (I am borrowing from Darwin and his observations on evolution there). Take the time to review the infrastructure of your school – the workflows, the procedures and policies, planning expectations and other demands on time, if you want to emphasis the actions that deliver the change you want to see remove the actions that don’t deliver these changes and free up time, space and energy for those that do.

The organisation of staff is still the same

This isn’t about change for the sake of change. Not every organisational structure needs to change, but if you are changing the focus of your school culture then you do need to make sure that the structure of the school supports the desired culture.

The structure of the school stands on the shoulders of the infrastructure, it includes how people are organised, how the report and who to, how they are held  accountable and how they network and communicate. Take the time to see whether communication is flowing quickly and naturally between groups of people and that responsibilities are shared. If one person or group has a greater weight of responsibility or volume of work to do, it can cause issues with delivering the changes that you want. Routing all communication through one person for example slows down the flow of information, consider alternatives to email chains and lines of communication.

You can't see the change in your staff

A common issue with changed culture is that the articulation of it is uninspiring. It is another set of unobjectionable by essentially vapid words and phrases. Using the same words as everyone else to describe your culture doesn’t differentiate it from anyone else.  

Consider this the superstructure, it refers to the norms, beliefs, ideologies, visions and world views that are prevalent in your school. They need to be in alignment behind any expression of values that you write down. These values need to build energy within a culture and energise the staff, they should meet three criteria. They should be true (leaders act on them), valued (important to the staff) and different. 

The last part is often the hardest thing to achieve but it stems from the authenticity of the person leading the change and their beliefs. When expressed as a mantra, it needs to be something that is actionable and empowers those that follow it, while at the same time being short, sweet and memorable.

Ask your staff if they can tell you the values that are supposed to underpin your cultural change. If they can’t or they struggle with expressing it easily, then consider changing the way that they are expressed. Be different. 

Changing the culture of an organisation isn’t as straight forward as delivering a speech and presentation. It has to mean something to the people in the school. Start by having the right sort of conversations with them, this will help deliver a message that they understand, buy into and can deliver on.