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Culture Killers: Staff Issue or Leadership Issue?


I was talking with a 2nd grade teacher the other day about dealing with difficult people when during the conversation I noticed her eyes begin to tear up.  It was clear that she had been deeply wounded and that she was still reeling from the after effect of it all. “Is it possible this person didn’t mean to hurt you?” I asked.  “Oh no,” she said. Everyone around here knows how she is.  In fact, this is how she treats everyone.”  Have you told her how you feel?” I continued.  “No, I am afraid to,” she responded.  I hesitated and then I asked her, “Have you shared your concerns with your principal?” “Yeah right,” she said. “He is scared of her too.”

And so it goes.  I cannot even begin to tell you how many times I’ve had people walk up to me after a presentation and share similar stories with me privately.  How sad it is when someone is allowed to cause so much personal disruption to others in our organizations to the point it makes good people want to walk away?  There is just no justification for our schools or any work environment for that matter to allow such toxicity to go unaddressed.  Yet, it continues.  In fact, so much that I would label this problem a near epidemic.

As a school leader I feel comfortable saying this in order to keep it real and more importantly, to hold myself accountable for recognizing that the truth in the scenario I described above is not a teacher issue, rather it is a leadership issue.  If we are going to state that teachers are responsible for fostering a positive culture and climate in their classrooms by how they conduct themselves on a daily basis, then we must hold ourselves to the same standard as leaders for our buildings.  As principals and Superintendents, we set the tone and determine what we are willing to tolerate and the standards we set and expect when it comes to employee conduct as well as the manner in which we ourselves address concerns brought to us by others.

We ultimately are responsible for carrying the banner for our schools and districts in a positive way and part of that is managing our own interactions with staff appropriately. It also means we must be willing to address negative behaviors which can quickly destroy the very fiber of a healthy culture we so desperately are trying to procure. In my work with school districts, many leaders have shared with me privately they are struggling with how to address cultural issues they are facing in their organizations.  Below I share a few areas where school leaders have come up short when it comes to addressing these culture killers as well as suggestions on how to address.

  1. Remove the word “THEY”: Do your best to remove this from your vocabulary unless you can ensure it will be followed by a positive comment. Unfortunately, the word “THEY” is often used to place blame on others or give excuses. Replace “THEY” with “WE,” in order to send the message that we are all in this together regardless of the outcome. Collective efficacy is the first step to moving towards success for your organization.
  2. Gossip is one of the biggest culture killers that exists in all organizations today. In fact, gossip says more about the person actually sharing the gossip than the person they are gossiping about.  Do you ever wonder this?  Hmmm….if they are willing to gossip about others to me, what are they saying about me to others? To stop the gossip posse, you must be strong and tell them in a respectful way that you would prefer they not share those types of comments with you.  Model professionalism.
  3. Those kids: This is personal to me because I was one of “those kids” in the eyes of some teachers and administrators during my school years. I have heard this form of labeling placed on low-performing students, reluctant learners, students who struggle to control their behavior, poor kids and sometimes even children of color. Replace “those students” with “OUR” students and avoid generalizing.
  4. Inflexibility: There will always be times when “stuff” happens that causes someone to need help from a colleague or an administrator. It is inevitable. Why? Because life happens sometimes and we need to remember that when it does, we need to work with our team so they don’t feel like they don’t have any options. Being flexible often originates from empathy, one of the keys to a successful organization. Ask, “What can I do to help?”
  5. Repressed Ideas: We should always strive to inspire others and their ideas, not repress them. Let’s not only be a champion for children, but let’s also be a champion for our teachers and each other.  Everyone deserves to see a dream, a vision, a goal, or plan come to fruition. Cultures of excellence are rooted here. Ask yourself this question; “Is the person who presented the idea to you more excited after they leave you than they were before they presented their idea to you?”  Strive to make the answer YES!
  6. Zero-Tolerance Rules: These types of rules and policies perpetuate a culture of winners and losers and rarely make the impact they were intended to make. Consider replacing classroom rules with high standards and expectations and have students help develop them. High expectations are critical to the success of all students as well as our schools so expect excellence!
  7. Removing Students from Class: I am referring to minor infractions here.  Sending a student out of class for lack of supplies, talking too much, refusal to work, sleeping, or coming to class late or unprepared, etc. is a guaranteed culture killer. It sends a strong message that it is more about the adults than it is about the students.  Don’t be fooled by the notion that we need to teach kids that is how the real world works when you are not prepared or engaged.  If that were true I’m afraid of how many times we would be sending staff members home for similar infractions.


By no means am I stating that we as leaders will never find ourselves failing to address some of these items I’ve listed above. None of us our immune from mistakes. But let our failings be temporary because we have a plethora of other issues on our plate that we are dealing with that consume our time or because we have failed to manage our time wisely, rather than not addressing out of fear. There is no excuse on our part as leaders not to continue to improve and develop our skillsets in dealing with such culture killers. After all, great change begins with self-change. Our students and staff deserve to learn and work in a culture where people genuinely care about each other. As leaders, we must own this responsibility and demonstrate the courage to confront such issues rather than avoid or worse yet, ignore for fear of what repercussions might come our way.

Remember, when staff is not performing their work or conducting themselves at the high level that students, parents, and their colleagues deserve, ask yourself this question, “Is this a staff issue or is it my issue because I have failed to acknowledge and address?” My guess in most cases it will be a leadership issue and we must own it, especially if we plan on eliminating the dreaded culture killers and becoming culture builders.

What are other culture killers that are impacting your organization in a negative way?

More importantly, what are you doing about it?




  • Louis Manuppelli
    1 year ago

    Thanks Jimmy, some great thoughts especially with school starting in a few days! I wish you and your family the best.

    Lou Manuppelli

  • Rachelle
    1 year ago

    Really enjoyed reading this, have heard similar statements and wondered some of the same things. Thanks for this post, being flexible to changes, open to new ideas, having empathy, are ways to start a new school year. The most important thing I try to do is always reflect on my actions, how am I impacting others and what I can I do differently.

  • kate
    1 year ago

    I needed to read this today. Thanks, Jimmy!

  • Michelle Discenza
    1 year ago

    I shared these important reminders with my colleagues. You teach people what you will tolerate. Thank you Jimmy! Michelle

  • Matt
    1 year ago

    Great post, Jimmy. This stood out to me:

    “Is the person who presented the idea to you more excited after they leave you than they were before they presented their idea to you?”

    I believe #5 can be a sleeper culture killer. School leaders have to make so many decisions and won’t always be able to say yes to new idea that originates from a staff member. Being flexible with communicating the why and finding ways to make an idea come to fruition is important. At times school leaders might not be aware that they are repressing ideas. Mandated initiatives or procedures often dictate what processes need to be followed and ideas might get repressed in the process. This of course is not in all cases, but repressing staff ideas can limit a culture from reaching its potential. I’ll be keeping your post in mind as a new school year begins.

  • Lucy
    1 year ago

    Great post Jimmy. #truth

    1 year ago

    Outstanding read Jimmy!

  • DJ Johnson
    1 year ago

    Very timely my brother! Thank you!

  • Joel Illian
    1 year ago

    Good thoughts, Jimmy. I think we at the top are far more often the cause of culture problems than those under us. And when I look at it a bit deeper, I think it can be said that the leader is always responsible for culture problems around him.

  • Ari Yares
    1 year ago

    Learning to use we instead of I or they was one of the first hands on lessons that I had as a new principal. My much more experienced assistant principal pulled me aside and gently explained how alienating my language usage could be. It’s a conversation that has stuck because I continue to realize that our words as leaders are constantly parsed over by those that we work with for additional meanings. Meanings that we might not have ever intended to convey!

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