To most new managers and leaders “culture” is a dirty word. They have typically been promoted into, or accepted a situation where the culture is already set, long-standing and strong and invariably there are things about it that are not to the new leader’s liking. This should not surprise us as leaders exist mostly to achieve new goals and in order to accomplish that they must change things. Change and Culture don’t often see “eye-to-eye.” However, if I am truly thinking like a leader then I want to know and understand the current culture. Culture, according to Schein, is “A pattern of shared basic assumptions that the group learned as it solved problems of external adaptation and internal integration that has worked well enough to be valid and therefore taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think and feel in relation to those problems.” Since these beliefs are long-standing and held among enough members of the group to be valid and thereby taught to new members, then they must, at least serve a purpose and, at most, be highly valued by the group. Understanding the culture and how those beliefs came to be there and why they are important to the group gives me information that will help me as I need to make changes in the future. Additionally, seeking out the answers as to the values and underlying beliefs of the culture, if done with tact, will also help to build my credibility and increase my engagement with staff. When I can accomplish so many things with only one activity I know I am being efficient (a key to accomplishing all of the necessary work of leadership).

So let me be constantly diagnosing the culture and testing the waters to see how things are and if they are changing. Let me ask each person “why” they work here and what makes work satisfying to them. Let me also understand what gets in the way and doesn’t appeal to them.

Let me also ask myself some questions and be honest about the answers to see how I am contributing to the current culture (Schein). What am I paying attention to, measuring and controlling on a regular basis? If I talk about “quality” in staff meetings but spend time with staff asking about financial impact and going over “the numbers” then I’m really sending a mixed message. It’s the finance message in this example that will embed itself in the culture because it’s what I’m concerned about on a regular basis. Another question to ask is how I allocate resources. Where does the money go? Cultures easily see who and where money is allocated and, subsequently, interprets that message as to what is important in this organization. If the organization builds a new building and staff do not get salary increases (you are wasting your breath trying to explain how that money comes from two different pots) then the culture may deem that the organization believes the physical structure is more important than the people who staff it. Then, when management sends the email that says “people are our most important asset” the culture sees the inconsistency and determines that one of these “statements” must be a lie (guess which one they choose to not believe?).

While you are assessing the state of your organization and/or department culture it is not necessary to deal with all of the inconsistencies and difficulties you might find. Cultures can evolve but they do so very slowly. The important thing for a leader to recognize is that we must start thinking about the culture and constantly be assessing what it is. That is how we will know what strengths and weaknesses it has. When we know this we can use those strengths and weaknesses to solidify our work or to change our direction.

Mark Rulle is President of the Maryland Healthcare Education Institute.