Let us consider again the experiences of Yaron, the new instructor and researcher at Toptear University, as he tries to work out what the rules and cultural norms are: he is encountering a number of mixed messages that need to be deciphered.

Yaron

"So, I've been here a month now. I finally got to see the head of department and she outlined what she wanted of me. We discussed my workload and she agreed that it was a bit high, and apologized and asked if I would just do my best. She acted as if it was the university's fault and that she was just doing what she was required to do to keep the department going.

But I found out the real story from my colleagues. Apparently the head of department finds it hard to get people to do things, so she always loads up new people. There doesn't seem to be a huge amount of equity and I certainly don't feel happy about the role I have to play.

My goal now is just to survive. The others have told me what I need to do to get through this next year, and I've made a list of their advice."

Yaron's list

  • Avoid staff meetings, because that's when jobs are handed out
  • Only do things that will help my career
  • Teach to a satisfactory level only and focus more on my research as much as possible
  • Work away from the office whenever I can
  • Just focus on my needs

Yaron

"So, overall, it isn't panning out the way I thought it would. The interview indicated that everyone worked together and had a really strong focus on enriching the student experience and building community engagement. What I have been hearing and seeing is that it is 'every person for themselves'. So I will do my time here for a year or two and then move on. This isn't the sort of place I wanted to join..."

Our new academic has encountered two different cultures: a weak university culture that espouses certain principles, but doesn't support them in practice, and a strong academic culture that promotes self-interest as the dominant value system. Despite his excellent deployment of constructive dissent to redress the problem of workload, we can recognize his rapid acceptance of the strong cultural norms that predominate.

The concept of strong and weak cultures helps to explain why universities can be challenging to lead and manage.

What is cultural 'strength'?

Cultural strength relates to the level of cohesion that exists between different members of a group. It may be measured across a particular department or sub-culture, or across the entire university. The table below summarizes the difference between strong and weak cultures.

Strong cultures Weak cultures
  • Individual behaviors consistently reflect group rhetoric and values
  • Produce consensus and clarity
  • Individual behaviors reflect a diversity of beliefs and values
  • Produce inconsistency in practice


Sporn (1996) argues that cultural strength occurs when:

  • There is a good fit between the organizational, managerial and individual values
  • There is widespread understanding and allegiance to the strategic direction and plans within the organization
  • The organizational structures assist the achievement of the desired goals.

Too much of a good thing?

It can certainly be argued that very weak cultures are less desirable, because they make it difficult to maintain strong connections between individuals, and difficult to ensure that the same cues and messages are being received. But very strong cultures that ensure total consistency may perhaps be equally undesirable, moving toward the 'McDonald's-ization' of our educational practice (see Carlsen, 2009) where all systems and routines are rigidly dictated to ensure uniformity of product and delivery. Effective cultures accommodate difference and recognize that constructive dissenters are necessary voices that should be heard to ensure the diverse needs of the community are being recognized and addressed.

Implications for leaders and managers

Organizational icon

Heads of department who are seeking to promote particular outcomes and values need to be aware of the cultural strength of their communities. While the broader institutional culture may be weak, it is still possible to build cultural strength within a smaller sub-group like a school or department, so that members possess a positive level of cultural identity.

In the next section, you will have the opportunity to assess strength of your own sub-group's culture. Consider the following statements. For each statement, evaluate whether you feel it is not evident, somewhat evident or strongly evident within your own sub-group. Keep a record of your answers, and then move on to consider some feedback based on your answers.

How strong or weak is my culture?

  • Statement 1 of 16: There is strong agreement across staff as to the purpose of the university and its priorities.
  • Statement 2 of 16: All faculty apply the same processes and systems to their teaching.
  • Statement 3 of 16: New staff have a good understanding of the university and its activities.
  • Statement 4 of 16: Relevant staff understand the principles that are required to develop a new course of study.
  • Statement 5 of 16: All researchers ensure their research reflects the different steps required by the university.
  • Statement 6 of 16: Academics and professional staff are able to describe the risk management strategy for the university.
  • Statement 7 of 16: Policies and procedures (such as filling out correct forms) are consistently applied by all staff as required.
  • Statement 8 of 16: Staff are familiar with the university's strategic priorities, mission and goals.
  • Statement 9 of 16: Each staff member is familiar with their department's services and strategies.
  • Statement 10 of 16: Academic staff have strong affiliation with their school or department.
  • Statement 11 of 16: Discipline allegiance is of little concern to academic staff.
  • Statement 12 of 16: Academics readily participate in university activities.
  • Statement 13 of 16: Professional staff are invited to collaborate with academic staff on organizational projects.
  • Statement 14 of 16: Strategic meetings include both professional and academic staff.
  • Statement 15 of 16: The head can name all staff.
  • Statement 16 of 16: Staff attend meetings and social functions.

Review your ratings for these statements: roughly total up the number of times you have selected 'not evident', 'somewhat evident' and 'strongly evident'. Then consider the appropriate feedback paragraph based on your ratings.

I have mainly selected 'strongly evident'

Feedback: Your culture is strong for a university. It is likely that you have a good consistent message flowing through. However, monitor the degree to which individual needs and diversity are being accommodated.

I have mainly selected 'somewhat evident'

Feedback: There seem to be some good indications of a strengthening culture, but there is room for ongoing efforts to build a more cohesive linkage.

I have mainly selected 'not evident'

Feedback: Your culture is weak, and unlikely to have good cohesion in its practices.

You will now be presented again with the statements you have just rated, but this time each statement will be followed by a specific tip for improvement. Review your ratings once more: for each statement that you rated as 'somewhat evident' or 'not evident', consider the accompanying tip. In this way you will be able to develop an action plan for increasing or sustaining the strength of your culture.

Statement 1 of 16: There is strong agreement across staff as to the purpose of the university and its priorities.
Action plan if not evident: Facilitate agreement between staff on purpose and priorities.

Statement 2 of 16: All faculty apply the same processes and systems to their teaching.
Action plan if not evident: Increase consistency in processes and systems used in instruction.

Statement 3 of 16: New staff have a good understanding of the university and its activities.
Action plan if not evident: Improve staff orientation.

Statement 4 of 16: Relevant staff understand the principles that are required to develop a new course of study.
Action plan if not evident: Train relevant staff in the principles required to develop new courses.

Statement 5 of 16: All researchers ensure their research reflects the different steps required by the university.
Action plan if not evident: Ensure researchers are following the steps required by the university.

Statement 6 of 16: Academics and professional staff are able to describe the risk management strategy for the university.
Action plan if not evident: Provide training in risk management strategy.

Statement 7 of 16: Policies and procedures (such as filling out correct forms) are consistently applied by all staff as required.
Action plan if not evident: Provide and implement the use of forms and templates.

Statement 8 of 16: Staff are familiar with the university's strategic priorities, mission and goals.
Action plan if not evident: Ensure staff are familiar with the university's strategic priorities, mission and goals.

Statement 9 of 16: Each staff member is familiar with their department's services and strategies.
Action plan if not evident: Ensure staff are familiar with departmental services and strategies.

Statement 10 of 16: Academic staff have strong affiliation with their school or department.
Action plan if not evident: Increase opportunities to interact and learn more about each other and what each person does.

Statement 11 of 16: Discipline allegiance is of little concern to academic staff.
Action plan if not evident: Identify activities that are valued and discuss their importance with those members.

Statement 12 of 16: Academics readily participate in university activities.
Action plan if not evident: Encourage academics to participate in university activities through rewards, recognition and encouragement.

Statement 13 of 16: Professional staff are invited to collaborate with academic staff on organizational projects.
Action plan if not evident: Invite professional staff to collaborate with academic staff on organizational projects.

Statement 14 of 16: Strategic meetings include both professional and academic staff.
Action plan if not evident: Include both professional and academic staff at strategic meetings.

Statement 15 of 16: The head can name all staff.
Action plan if not evident: Learn the names of all members of your team!

Statement 16 of 16: Staff attend meetings and social functions.
Action plan if not evident: Make sure you attend meetings and social functions.

An important element of this activity you have just completed is to recognize that where a symptom is identified, it is possible to change your leadership practices to increase your effectiveness. In many cases, the strategies might relate to improved communication, better alignment of principles and practices, or stronger interaction with individual staff.

The important message to take away from this section is that your local culture can be highly influential if the right messages and values are being consistently conveyed.