On My Mind: Leveraging Our Core Beliefs in Schools

Spring 2022

By Donna Orem

i747ir1067.jpgThis article appeared as “Striking Accord” in the Spring 2022 issue of Independent School.

Culture is that amorphous state that is often defined as the social order of things. It shapes attitudes and behaviors—and it is shaped by them. Culture can be a powerful driving force, or it can inhibit progress. It can be healthy or toxic. If we are not intentional about the culture we seek, it can be shaped by the loudest or most powerful voices rather than molded to support the values of the school and the common good of the community.
The formation of culture has been well-researched and examined through different lenses. In the January/February 2018 issue of Harvard Business Review, with the cover title “The Culture Factor,” article authors explored many aspects of culture including a study of the research literature for commonalities and insights. They found agreement that “the two primary dimensions [of culture] that apply regardless of organization type, size, industry, or geography are: people interactions and response to change.” For example, culture is influenced by an organization’s orientation toward a highly independent or highly interdependent people culture. In highly interdependent cultures, “people tend to collaborate and to see success through the lens of the group.” In more independent cultures, individual achievement is encouraged and celebrated.
When it comes to change, culture is driven by a stability or a flexibility orientation. “Those that favor stability tend to follow rules, use control structures such as seniority-based staffing, reinforce hierarchy, and strive for efficiency. Those that favor flexibility tend to prioritize innovation, openness, diversity, and a longer-term orientation.” The authors suggest that the way these factors interact, whether intentionally or unintentionally, produce eight different types of organizational cultures:

Caring cultures focus on relationships and mutual trust, embodied by warm, collaborative, and welcoming workplaces. 

Purpose cultures are exemplified by idealism and altruism and an outlook of doing good for the long-term future of the world. 

Learning cultures value exploration, expansiveness, innovation, and creativity.

Enjoyment cultures embody fun and excitement, and work environments are lighthearted places.

Results-oriented cultures value achievement and winning. 

Authority cultures are strong, decisive, bold, and competitive.

Safety cultures are characterized by planning, caution, and preparedness.

Order cultures focus on respect, structure, shared norms, and a “playing by the rules” ethos.

One or more of these cultures may resonate as the dominant one in your school today or one to which you aspire. Wherever your school falls culturally, the pressures of the past few years may make it harder to achieve cultural harmony than ever before. An increasing societal tribalism that is eroding our ability to find common ground might be at play.

To the Core

In 2018, the global organization More in Common released a report called "Hidden Tribes: A Study of America's Polarized Landscape," which concluded that core beliefs are a more powerful force for binding people together than political opinions, race, class, or gender and, that by understanding those beliefs, we may gain greater insights into where we can find common ground and nurture the cultures we desire.
The study examined five dimensions of core beliefs—tribalism and group identification, fear and perception of threat, parenting style and authoritarian disposition, moral foundations, and personal agency and responsibility—which resulted in the identification of the following seven distinct tribes.
Progressive Activists reject authority and privilege and are intent on rectifying historical injustices. They are highly engaged with political issues, educated, and economically secure. This group is highly sensitive to issues of fairness and equity and may be the most vocal critics in a school community when they feel leaders are not taking swift enough action to mitigate injustices.
Traditional Liberals have strong humanitarian values and tend to reflect the more liberal ideas of the baby boomer generation. They will be the members of your school community who are more idealistic about what is possible and will support finding middle ground. You may find donors in this group who can assist in bringing others along to support the institution.
Passive Liberals are majority female (59%) and tend to be distrustful and disillusioned. They are not as engaged in social and political issues as the previous two groups and generally do not consume much news. Within the school community, this may be a group that is looking for safety and security and will become more engaged as you build trust with them.
The Politically Disengaged are young and distrustful, have lower levels of education, and may have faced harsh circumstances, such as going without food or medical attention. They are also the least well-informed group politically and are pessimistic about the possibility of reconciling differences. If you have members of this tribe in your school community, they can be very hard to engage, but, with some much-needed support, they may become trusting members of your community.
Moderates are engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, and interested in current affairs, but they are uncomfortable with the tribalism of politics. They can be socially conservative and often quite religious. As members of your school community, they are open to compromise and reject extremism and intolerance. They can be effective partners in bringing others to common ground. You may find moderates among board members or serving on parent committees as they are often active volunteers.
Traditional Conservatives are religious, patriotic, and moralistic. These may be members of your school community who are questioning or seeking to understand social justice initiatives. They are open to dialogue, so you should engage them to understand their concerns.
Devoted Conservatives are highly engaged politically, very patriotic, and one of the highest-earning income groups. They believe that American values are being eroded rapidly. You may find some of your donors among this group, and they might restrict giving if the school’s values no longer align with their core beliefs.
Of the seven tribes, the study found that the middle five can be the most flexible and are anxious to bridge differences—they are the “Exhausted Majority,” tired of conflict. The two wing groups are much more difficult to influence.

Building Bridges

Although school leaders have many priorities in this complex time, rebuilding a healthy culture may be the most important. Leaders will need to build bridges to achieve the culture they seek and break down the silos that are keeping the tribes apart.
No matter what a school’s ultimate culture goal, given what we have all been through over the past two years, I would suggest that nurturing a caring culture is job one. This will ensure that as you build toward the future, you are building on a foundation of trust. Some of the middle five groups outlined above can be active participants in this process. Seek them out and engage them in finding that common ground so that you can begin moving from “me” to “we” (read more in “Getting to We”).
As the poet Maya Angelou once wisely said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” We all need to feel cared for these days.

What I’m Reading

Every year, I look forward to receiving global brand consulting firm Wunderman Thompson’s “Future 100.” This report outlines the top 100 trends affecting the marketplace in the year ahead. Although many trends are not directly applicable to independent schools, these forecasts provide insights into the context in which schools will operate. One of the themes for 2022, “Unbounded Optimism,” explores the movement toward providing joy in people’s lives to counteract the effects of the pandemic. The report also predicts many changes in the workforce, including: organizations creating the role of chief impact officer to ensure their work is impacting communities in positive ways; the rise of micropreneurs, who are quitting their jobs and starting their own businesses to do work more in line with their values; and the “shecovery” in which organizations are placing women’s needs more at the center to bring them back into the workforce post-pandemic.
One trend that really caught my attention was forecast by Rachel Carlson, cofounder and CEO of Guild Education. She predicted that 2022 will be the start of a “new formula for education—one that may even supplant a college degree.” Speaking on the Masters of Scale podcast, she said, the “ ‘ four and 40’ which previously saw the majority of employees go to school for four years, then work for 40, is ‘dead’ and supplanted by a new model. ‘What’s now is the every four. You’re going to have to learn some sort of new skill every four years.’ ”
Download “The Future 100: Trends and change to watch in 2022.”
Donna Orem

Donna Orem is a former president of NAIS.