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Six Ways to Build a Positive Culture

By Kim Marshall, TIE columnist

This piece is reprinted from The Marshall Memo, Kim Marshall’s weekly summary of current research and best practices in the field of education. Drawing on his experience as a teacher, principal, central office administrator, consultant, and writer, Kim Marshall lightens the load of busy educators by serving as their “designated reader.”
“Management Be Nimble” by Adam Bryant in The New York Times, Jan. 5, 2014,; this article is adapted from Bryant’s new book, Quick and Nimble: Lessons from Leading C.E.O.’s on How to Create a Culture of Innovation (Times Books, 2014).
In this New York Times article, Adam Bryant summarizes the key factors involved in building and sustaining a good organizational climate – “the things that, if done well, have an outsize positive impact, and if done poorly or not at all, have an outsize negative impact.”
• A simple plan – “One of the leader’s most important roles,” says Bryant, “is to boil down an organization’s many priorities and strategies into a simple plan, so that employees can remember it, internalize it and act on it. With clear goals and metrics, everyone can pull in the same direction, knowing how their work contributes to those goals.”
• It’s about the team – One leader had a simple rule: you have to do what you say you’re going to do. In other words, everyone has to play his or her position well and feel confident that others will do the same. “When everyone does that,” says Bryant, “the team can focus on executing the strategy, instead of worrying whether colleagues will do what they’re supposed to do. (And such concerns, multiplied across the entire organization, can add up to a lot of wasted energy and lost momentum.)”
• Rules of the road – There’s more than one way to develop an organization’s values and norms, says Bryant. They can come from the leaders, from a bottom-up process, or from a combination of both. The key is that people have to live by those values, reinforce them every day, and not tolerate behavior that’s at odds with them. If poor behavior is accepted, people get cynical, and that spreads like an infection.
• Adult conversations – Teamwork and values will thrive only if people are willing to have frank discussions when norms are violated and work through their disagreements and misunderstandings. Here’s how Seth Besmertnik, a technology CEO, put it: “When you’re confident, you can give people feedback. You can be candid. You feel secure enough to say what’s really on your mind, to bring someone in the room and say, ‘You did this. It really made me feel XYZ.’ Having good conversations is really 80 percent of being an effective manager.”
• A little respect – Bryant says that most adults have had the experience of a boss criticizing them in front of colleagues, and it usually makes them determined not to do that themselves. John Duffy, a mobile-technology executive, says, “We have absolutely clear discussions with everyone about how respect is the thing that cannot be messed with in our culture. When we have problems with somebody gossiping, or someone being disrespectful to a superior or a subordinate, or a peer, it is swarmed on and dealt with. We make everyone understand that the reason the culture works is that we have that respect. There is a comfort level and a feeling of safety inside our business.”
• The hazards of e-mail – The convenience of e-mail leads many to fall into the trap of avoiding face-to-face conversations and thinking they can handle almost anything, including conflicts, electronically. “By talking over the phone or in person,” says Bryant, “you’ll not only avoid dangerous misunderstandings, but you’ll also develop relationships and a sense of trust with colleagues, essential ingredients in fostering the kind of high-performing culture that drives innovation.”
Nancy Aossey, CEO of International Medical Corps, says, “People change when they talk in person about a problem, not because they chicken out, but because they have the benefit of seeing the person, seeing their reaction, and getting a sense of the person. But arguing over e-mail is about having the last word. It plays into something very dangerous in human behavior. You want to have the last word, and nothing brings that out more than e-mail because you can sit there and hit ‘send,’ and then it just kind of ratchets up and you don’t have the benefit of knowing the tone.”
Summary reprinted from Marshall Memo 519, 13 January 2014.

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