HELP! I'm a leader floundering in a toxic culture – and it may be because of me

Sean Slade and Erich Bolz
August, 2023

Originally published in the CEE Blog, this article considers the role a leader plays in determining whether a school's culture is healthy or toxic.

As leaders, it has never been more important to address the culture of our schools. The past two years have highlighted the role that a safe, consistent and welcoming culture can have on our teachers and our students.

Culture, however, can be beneficial or it can be toxic. Our first two blogs of this series named this proverbial elephant in the room. This piece hits squarely on a leadership challenge: What is the leader’s contribution to building a healthy culture or allowing a toxic culture to persist?

In our first blog, we identified the role culture plays in a healthy workplace and reminded readers of the notion that culture eats strategy (synonym for our favorite word structure) for breakfast. We built upon that foundation with a piece using USC football to illustrate what happens when world class structure meets subpar culture. Culture is a dominant force and will often defeat good intentions and even good planning. There is no way to “forget about it” because it will show up everyday rain or shine, good intentions or not.

The term “toxic culture” shows up often in writing and in conversations, yet do we know what the threshold might be for a truly toxic culture? Work is highly idiosyncratic between two people, let alone groups. We chalk up some universal complaints, including under function, bureaucratic constraints, and poor communication to the everyday workplace. They don’t meet the threshold for toxicity.

What is a toxic culture then? Don and Charlie Sull co-founders of CultureX suggest the key symptoms of a toxic culture are non-inclusive, disrespect, unethical, dishonest, cutthroat, and abusive managers. What separates these symptoms from the more typical workplace complaints is if one or more exist pervasively in an organization. This toxicity negatively affects the lives of those in the organization in several quantifiable ways.

The next question, therefore, becomes how do we ensure a positive culture, even if we currently have a toxic one? We will explore a highlight from Dr. Charles “Chuck” Salina and Dr. Suzann Girtz’s Powerless to Powerful Framework. The efficiency of this method makes this a favorite of CEE, administrators and leadership coaches.

In our earlier post, we promised there is a way to realize positive shifts in school culture in as little as 45 days. Let’s use the “I versus They” gap as our starting place. The gap in perceptions reflects individual team members judging themselves by their intent and others by their behavior. The greater the gap, the greater the resistance, and the greater chance it will inhibit or erode trust in a team. To address this gap, two key questions emerge. First, “What are the plausible reasons this gap exists? Could it be an inter-staff dynamic, or staff-administrator dynamic? A follow up to that question could be, “What happens if we allow the gap to persist?” The second question, “What would you need to see, hear, or experience to know the culture is improving?”

Having the courage to analyze a data set for cultural issues and then having the courage to formulate and ask a key one-on-one question is the first step to improving culture. Once asked, make the surfaced themes public. We advocate sorting the themes into two buckets: quick wins and complex themes. Addressing quick wins and making those wins public inspires confidence. Also necessary is a way to engage key stakeholders to wrestle with the most pressing of the complex issues. When a stakeholder group gathers to develop a solution, identify and name a success criterion.

This approach is cyclical. Using a coach can help leaders see the situation from a neutral or objective perspective. Making cultural change is daunting. Surrounding leaders with a supportive, knowledgeable coach can be key to ensuring their success.

The way school leaders react and interact with staff sways the culture by setting the tone and modeling expected, acceptable - and unacceptable - behavior. A recent comment by a school staff member struggling with the building culture says it all, “I keep my head down so it stays on my shoulders.” In another school, a leader admonished, “Do what I say, if you are not a team player, you are out.” Alternatively, and on a more positive note, a principal in WA recently shared, “The conversations engendered by this simple, but powerful leadership move (1:1 conversation with staff members) helped me discover that my hypothesis (about staff data) was wrong.” In a recent episode of Outliers in Education podcast, Doug Kaplicky, an award-winning principal, speaker, author and consultant delves into the many ways in which developing and maintaining a positive school culture bears fruit for students, staff and community.

Ep. 12: Care and Feeding of Positive School Cultures with Doug Kaplicky

Understanding how you react to situations, interactions, and frustrations is essential. With this knowledge, leaders can change the mood, improve connection and grow relationships. A mindset shift in your own understandings and abilities will allow others to adopt a similar approach for themselves. Culture is based on interpersonal interactions and the human side of leadership is what can grow a positive culture.

CEE partner BTS Spark provides coaching solutions that focus on improving culture and developing educational leaders. It is not always optimal to rely on an internal confidant when changing the culture, and candidly, it is likely as the leader, you may be part of the problem.

Changing the culture – moving from a toxic one to a positive one – starts with the school leader. If you are interested in more key strategies for improving culture and developing educational leaders, tune into our next blog.