• Michelle

Culture Club

Updated: Aug 25, 2018

Thank God we’re finally talking about the robot apocalypse.  It’s nice to have that out in the open.

So I read Lisa Feldman Barrett’s book How Emotions are Made.  She asserts that “emotions are social reality. A physical event like a change in heart rate, blood pressure, or respiration becomes an emotional experience only when we, with emotion concepts that we have learned from our culture, imbue the sensations with additional functions by social agreement.” (39, emphasis mine)  Near the end of her book, she reminds us again that “the dividing line between biology and culture is porous.” (284) Read those quotes again. SLOWLY.

Feldman Barrett keeps coming back to the idea that our neurons reconfigure in response to experiences and ideas we're exposed to. In this way, the culture of a place can change our biology. The institutions in which we spend the most time actually rewire us and change our perspective. Doesn't that BLOW YOUR MIND?

As my friend Tim Leet would say (@heartocharacter), culture teaches character. Culture has such power over our minds, especially if we're not aware of it.  #charactered (woot!)

Now, think about your workplace.  Or the school where you study.  How would you describe its culture, and how does that culture affect you personally? I know Feldman is talking about culture from a big picture perspective, but I’m pretty sure she also means the culture of a family, a neighborhood, a school, a workplace.

I recently overheard two coworkers chatting as they had lunch. One of them said, decisively: “I mean, it’s work, you know?  You expect to be bullied.” Why is that okay? Why do we just assume there's nothing to be done? We need to develop agency around our school and workplace cultures. #companyculture  #schoolculture

Institutional culture is what employees or students talk about when they’re alone with each other. It's a package of their expectations for how work is done there, how humans interact there, and how they feel when they're at work/school. Culture influences every decision we make, especially how we relate to each other.

The leader is always responsible for the culture.  Always. @chefjohnbesh If your institutional culture isn't shaped deliberately, it could spin out of control while the leaders assume culture just happens.  What if we thought that way about our cars or our bodies? "It just runs itself. It's not my job to pay attention to that." When culture is thoughtful and carefully curated, employees or students respond to problems exactly the way the leader would, so fewer big problems come to the leader’s desk. When you have a default culture, employees often feel disrespected and view the leadership as hypocritical.

How can you be intentional about institutional culture? I see culture-building in two parts: 1. deliberate structures 2. organic moments. Deliberate structures are those policies and practices (written and unwritten) that guide an institution's decision-making, while organic moments are unexpected events that affect every person within an institution.

I have some friends who have taken on new roles this school year and now must wrestle back a school culture which has been neglected for two years. They're starting by creating consensus around educational philosophy and reworking structures, such as the school discipline and teacher evaluation systems, to reflect their philosophy. In an office, the equivalent would be HR policies and how they're enforced. Hiring/firing procedures are especially culture-building. All of these deliberate structures must transparently reflect your school or company's philosophy. How we handle routine procedures communicates our culture, whether we're aware of it or not.  We get into trouble when what we do isn't what's promised.  Most often, this happens because only one person has the vision, and those in charge of the day-to-day tasks don't think in line with the philosophy.  If we don't agree with our company's policy, it's easy to fake it.

But we can't fake it during those organic moments. They spring upon you with no warning, and the institution must respond. They're like public pop quizzes, and they are powerful for building culture. Everyone with any tie at all to your school or company studies the leadership during organic moments the way I examine flight attendants during turbulence.  The way some people watch Game of Thrones.  I digress; the leadership's response reveals the true company culture in those moments.

photo by Conway Solomon

After only one year of being the principal of a small, private high school, I experienced a culture-defining moment. Let's pause for a second and reflect on my home, New Orleans.  It is HOT, and I don't mean cute in those jeans. Our winters are like spring in most places. Clear skies, highs in the 60s with low humidity. Freezing temperatures are so rare our tropical plants take over entire blocks. But on this fateful day in 2008, it S-N-O-W-E-D. It was the day before mid-term exams began, a serious review day when everyone's nerves were on high alert. And smack in the middle of 2nd period, a few tentative snow flakes fluttered our way. Out of the ether, a student appeared in my office: "Mrs. Scandurro. It's snowing." I looked up from my spreadsheet: "Two flakes don't count as snow. You have exams starting tomorrow. Get back to work. It'll melt as soon as it lands, anyway."

It didn't melt. Magical, white fluff silently settled on the trees, the bushes, everything. Our campus became a wonderland. I grabbed my megaphone, stepped into the hallway, and found dozens of teachers and students frozen in place, looking at me. "Can we play?" "YES!!!" I said through the megaphone, and the entire high school poured out of classrooms and into the snow. They had snowball fights, danced, shivered, realized why God made coats, and, of course, made a snowman. What unadulterated joy that day. How beautiful it was to see the entire high school playing. What a cathartic release before exams. I wandered campus, watching the festivities, using the megaphone to warn of dangers. In the overwhelming moment, some students had wandered into the street with their snowball fight, and I called them back onto the green. My response to the snow betrayed our school's deep belief in student agency within healthy boundaries. Cancel class, let them play, and lovingly monitor. And your English exam is still tomorrow.

photos by Conway Solomon

These culture-making moments aren't always fun ones. Every scandal is a culture-building moment, as is every single time an employee or student needs to be let go. How we as leaders respond in those moments carves an institutional culture deeper into people's subconscious. That's why it's so important to have a clearly defined philosophy which is articulated often and reflected in company policies and practices. In the unpredictable spotlight, you will find confidence in the cultural foundation you've created.

photo by Conway Solomon

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