Surfacing, Understanding, & Changing Internalized Organizational Culture

Slide displaying live word cloud generated from interactive poll
Slide by Nikhat J. Ghouse and Mark A. Puente.

The room was already packed with attendees ten minutes before “Surfacing, Understanding, and Changing Internalized Organizational Culture” was scheduled to begin. The session, sponsored by the Library Leadership & Management Association (LLAMA), was held on Sunday, June 23, at the 2019 ALA Annual Conference in Washington, DC.

Nikhat Ghouse and Mark Puente lead the session. Ghouse is associate librarian for the social sciences and coordinator of the Diversity Alliance Residency Program at American University. She is also an organization development consultant specializing in change management, diversity, equity, and inclusion, team development, coaching, strategic planning, and facilitation. Puente is the director of diversity and leadership programs at the Association of Research Libraries (ARL).

Before the session began, Ghouse and Puente asked a question of the audience: “While interviewing a librarian candidate…you’re asked: How would you describe your organization’s culture?” Participants submitted their answers as keywords via an online poll, and the results appeared as a word cloud on the projection screen at the front of the room. The largest word on screen, and therefore the most popular submission, was the word “transitioning,” which indicates many of the attendees felt their organizations are currently facing changes. Other top submissions included “friendly” and “collaborative.” Several responses, however, indicated that attendees are facing turmoil in their institution: “confusing,” “uncertain,” “toxic,” “stuck.”

Ghouse and Puente discussed organizational culture through two main lenses. The first was provided by Edgar H. Schein in his book Organizational Culture and Leadership. Schein views culture as a shared set of underlying assumptions held by the group. The session also turned to Jaap Boonstra’s model, which he outlines in his book Cultural Change and Leadership in Organizations: A Practical Guide to Successful Organizational Change. Boonstra views organizational culture as a learning process and focuses on leaders’ and managers’ abilities to shape workplace culture and drive cultural change. 

One key takeaway from this session was that times of institutional change or stress can be used as a diagnostic tool and can provide an opportunity for a cultural change. Underlying assumptions, which form the basis of organizational culture, surface in times of institutional change and crisis. This provides the organization with an opportunity to examine those assumptions, and leaders can use that analysis to as an opportunity to challenge those basic assumptions and drive change. Ghouse and Puente emphasized that those in leadership positions must not simply talk about change but must model cultural change through their actions. They also noted that staff members who are not in a management or top leadership role can still create an impact on the subcultural level within their own departments or work groups.

Ghouse and Puente also asked the audience to split into small groups to practice identifying evidence of workplace cultures. The presenters provided two scenarios describing libraries facing change, as well as some discussion prompts. Both scenarios and discussion questions are available online.

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