The Key to Culture: 3 Steps to Creating a Positive Departmental Culture

The Key to Culture: 3 Steps to Creating a Positive Departmental Culture

Adam Cebulski

Senior Director, Office of Research & Strategic Initiatives, Campus Labs

Culture is something that, as higher education professionals, we try to cultivate within our organizations and across the student body. We request student organizations provide Mission Statements to help them define their purpose. We then provide these organizations with resources and support so they can better define their organizational culture; but what about our own departments? Are we making the same effort to define and hone culture interdepartmentally?

An organization’s culture can be defined many ways, but most agree culture is both an outcome and a process. Culture can be an outcome when talking about, “the way we do things around here”. The day-to-day actions within your organization are an outcome of your culture. Culture can also be defined when talking about a process. You are creating your organization’s culture when engaging in informal norms, rituals, or even when interacting with people externally.

When thinking about your department, it is important to think of culture as both an outcome and a process. As a result, your day-to-day interactions and messages become strategic and intentional to reinforce that culture.

So, where do you start?

Here are some tips to better define your departmental culture:

1. Gauge employee sentiment about culture.

It is vital to empower your team to reflect on what they think the departmental culture is. This process is where you can find disconnects and sources of frustration, but also positive feedback and new ideas! An engagement survey is able to assess the main aspects of your departmental culture, but here are some questions to help you get started: What behavior is rewarded and how is it recognized? How would you describe your department to a new team member?

2. Make your mission visible.

If you don’t already have your mission or statement of purpose on your website, add it. It is always refreshing to look at a department’s website and see space devoted to a mission or vision statement. This shows that you a.) have a set purpose and goals, and b.) are confident enough to let everyone see them. Your mission is by no means your department’s culture, but it sets the stage for it. For example, are your actions consistent with your mission? Your answer to that question will help you better define your culture. It also helps when it comes to accreditation or supporting initiatives out of your department.

3. Don’t be afraid to look in the mirror.

Many organizations shy away from asking these types of questions about their culture because they fear the answers. What if my staff say negative things about our department, or even worse, my leadership? What if they say we need to change the way we are doing things to address student concerns? The answer is: Do it anyway. It can be difficult to take an honest look at the culture of your organization because you may have to take ownership for some or all of it—good or bad. The good news is listening to your team and stakeholders is half the battle! The other half is taking action.

How would you rate your departmental culture? Have you conducted a benchmark test to compare your actual culture to your perceived culture? Please share your experiences with us.

Adam Cebulski

Senior Director, Office of Research & Strategic Initiatives, Campus Labs

Dallas, TX