Influencing Organizational Culture

In order to understand the task of leadership, it is important to identify the qualities of strong leaders and recognize personal leadership skills.  Head Start staff, Policy Council members and board members will learn how leaders influence staff members and parents to develop the knowledge, skills, and values needed to operate a Head Start program. This learning activity also includes techniques for shaping organizational culture by empowering others.


The following is an excerpt from Leading Head Start Into the Future.


The ability of Head Start directors, managers, and parent leaders to identify the qualities of strong leaders, recognize their own personal leadership skills and values, and assess how they practice those behaviors is crucial to understanding the task of leadership. However, if programs are to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century, leaders must ensure that all staff members and parents are prepared. Not only must leaders work through others to achieve program objectives and goals, but they must also understand how they shape the overall culture of their Head Start programs.

This module focuses on answering the following questions about the culture of Head Start programs: How do leaders influence staff members and parents to develop the knowledge, skills, and values needed to operate a twenty-first-century Head Start program? What leadership dynamics in the Head Start culture sets the tone so everyone can participate fully in his or her job? What leadership behaviors and strategies can help manage conflicts within a Head Start program?

Leading a program through continuous learning is also discussed as a strategy for developing strong, healthy programs that meet Head Start Program Performance Standards. Programs are required to provide ongoing training tools and support for staff members, parents, and consultants while serving the needs of children and families.

Meaning of Organizational Culture

Organizational culture is only one of the interrelated parts of a Head Start social system. This social system concept defines a quality service program as an organization or program with clearly defined parts that operate and communicate effectively in a collaborative manner. (See Participating in the Management Process: Module 2 from the Training Guides for the Head Start Learning Community series for more information about the parts of a social system.)

When considering the culture of a program, ask questions such as What values are represented in the program? and What values do parents and staff have in common? The link between program values and personal values is an important part of the program culture within the Head Start social system.

One unique element of Head Start's culture is that it has always been a model of diversity. It represents a wonderful blending of races, languages, creeds, and social-economic-educational levels. Although Head Start programs contain various ethnic, linguistic, and social organizational culture reflects several critical characteristics, including:1

  • Accepted behaviors such as language, rituals, and demeanor that members of the organization follow when they interact
  • Norms or standards that develop in working groups (acceptable daily behavior)
  • Values such as quality, diversity, inclusion, and collaboration that are supported by the organization (collective beliefs about what is important)
  • Philosophies that guide policies and procedures
  • Rules and customs for getting along in the organization
  • A climate that reflects how staff perceive different organizational practices

Impact of Culture

These characteristics include the basic assumptions and beliefs shared by all members of the organization and shape how the members perceive themselves and their environment. The culture is the framework used to resolve problems within the organization and the external environment.

Culture is community based. Head Start demonstrates how culture is an extension of the way people relate to one another internally and externally. The internal community of Head Start must take the lead and represent a strong and effective culture. Head Start culture depends on social interactions, communication, shared interests and responsibilities, collaboration, and friendships. Head Start's organizational culture is the framework used to determine what is important and what is not.2

The challenge for Head Start leaders is to influence and energize others within the culture to follow a shared vision. They must move their programs by emulating and supporting the behaviors and actions that create a strong, positive program culture that will thrive and forge ahead into the future.

Shaping Organizational Culture

Leaders can influence organizational culture; they can shape and mold the values, basic assumptions, and beliefs shared by the members of the organization. They play key roles in ensuring that their programs' culture supports good relationships that empower everyone to do his or her work.

Effective Head Start leaders develop a variety of strategies to shape culture and influence positive relationships within their programs. Leaders who learn to affect culture through others do so by empowering people to build good relationships. The following strategies can help leaders build a positive and effective organizational culture.

1. Being a MOVER

Leaders use several techniques to mold a healthy Head Start culture and to tap into the energy and creativity of staff and parents. These techniques involve applying and integrating effective leadership behaviors throughout the program, including:
  • Acting as a Mentor-sharing knowledge and expertise gained from experience
  • Facilitating Outreach within the program-ensuring communication among parents, staff, consultants, and every member of the organization promotes quality outcomes for children and families
  • Establishing a shared Vision-guiding and motivating staff, parents, and collaborators in visualizing and sharing the excitement of building a better future for Head Start children and families
  • Developing an Empowered organization-nurturing a sense of self-worth and commitment to Head Start through active participation
  • Being a Role Model-modeling ethical and value-based behaviors, standards of conduct, and lifelong learning

2. Empowering Others

One of the keys to discovering the gold mine of energy and creativity in others is empowerment. Empowerment is the collective effect of leadership. In Head Start programs with effective leadership, empowerment is most evident when these four values are present: people feel significant; learning and competence matter; people are part of a community; and work is exciting.3
  • People feel significant. Everyone makes a contribution to the organization and knows that his or her contribution is important and valued by the other members of the unit. A classroom has two co-teachers who plan and implement programs together, not a teacher who plans and an aide who implements.
  • Learning and competence matter. In a learning organization, it is safe to make a mistake; it is expected and viewed as a natural step in the learning process. A Head Start leader values learning and mastery. He or she conveys that message to everyone in the program by using performance reviews to identify staff training and professional development needs and by supporting education and training in every way.
  • People are part of a community. One of the leader's most important jobs is to unify, to create a team of people working toward a shared vision. Head Start programs can do this through strong two-way communication between staff and parents, conducted on a regular basis, with respect for the cultural and ethnic backgrounds of all families and staff.
  • Work is exciting. There is something special about working for Head Start that attracts people. The leader's challenge is to make sure that the work is stimulating and exciting by using his or her vision to motivate and energize the staff.

What does it mean to be empowered? Empowered people feel that they can control their survival. This means that they take full responsibility for their situations. They recognize and conduct themselves with feelings of personal power and control, flexibility, and trust from those serving in a leadership capacity.

Empowerment is evident when people from all levels of the organization are included in the decision-making process. They are empowered to manage and answer to their own achievements, challenges, and shortcomings. Empowering leaders influence others to agree on the rights and responsibilities of participating in a program.

Empowered Head Start staff and parents have an underlying purpose, goal, or vision of something worthwhile. They know they are an integral part of the program, and they commit themselves to achieving that purpose. They do not wait for things to get better before they start living their dream.

3. Fostering Good Communication

Communication is a critical element of organizational culture. The Head Start Program Performance Standards specify that grantee and delegate agencies must promote regular communication among all members of the program to facilitate quality outcomes for children and families.

At the programmatic level, leaders recognize the importance of regular, comprehensive communication between staff and parents, as well as the flow of timely and accurate information among parents, policy groups, staff, and the general community. However, at the individual level, leaders use communication as an effective tool for empowerment. Effective communication allows everyone to express his or her opinions, receive constructive feedback, and resolve conflicts. (See Communicating with Parents from the Training Guides for the Head Start Learning Community series for more information.)

4. Building Trust

When and how do we truly feel a sense of trust or comfort with a leader? How can a leader build a culture that supports trusting connections with groups of diverse people within the program? Building trust with staff, parents, and partners is essential to being an effective Head Start leader. Leaders practice the following skills to improve their trust-building capacity and their ability to appreciate the diversity of people:4
  • Being accessible. Inviting others to contact you shows your trust, availability, and willingness to focus on their concerns.
  • Listening actively at every opportunity. People know they are valued and respected when you listen to them.
  • Learning your constituents' stories. When you pay attention to the storyteller, you can discover a great deal about his or her values, humor, feelings, and even how he or she feels about the program.
  • Keeping in touch. You should meet and spend time with parents and all staff so you get to know them.

When staff, parents, and other program members trust one another and participate fully in program operations, leaders are able to promote a sense of commitment to that program.

5. Managing Conflict

To manage their organizations' culture so that it supports core Head Start values and beliefs, leaders must understand and recognize the dynamics or conflicts within their programs. This also helps them understand and diagnose issues related to organizational culture. Leaders realize that conflicts cannot be ignored. They must be brought into the open and channeled into useful purposes with creative, productive solutions.

Conflict management is a key component of effective communication. Conflict and differences are inherent in every organization. When Head Start leaders understand that conflict is an extension of collaborating and that collaborating is an extension of understanding, they can appreciate the role that conflict and differences can play in creating a climate of acceptance and creativity.

Therefore, effective leaders often see conflict as an opportunity for change. They encourage contrary opinions as an important source of vitality. Effective leaders are comfortable with the notion that conflict is a natural part of being human. They make it work for the program first by recognizing and accepting disagreement and then by modeling a variety of strategies to analyze and manage the conflict.

How do Head Start leaders know when conflict exists within the program? Symptoms of conflicts include increased tensions among staff or parents, increased disagreements and complaints, avoidance among members, and increased blaming. When analyzing these symptoms, leaders recognize that the causes of most conflicts are:
  • Misunderstandings or communication failures
  • Value and goal differences
  • Differences in methods or approaches to work
  • Conflicting job roles and responsibilities
  • Lack of spirit or cooperation
  • Authority issues
  • Noncompliance issues or differences in the interpretation of rules, policies, or standards
Effective leaders also plan a step-by-step process to assess and manage current conflicts. This strategy for managing conflict involves the following steps:
  • Define the problem from all points of view
  • State (to yourself) what you want or what you need
  • Generate as many solutions as possible
  • Test each idea and select the best solution(s)
  • Write an action plan
  • Act on your plan

Leaders analyze conflicts among others and determine what prevents a positive culture from being maintained within their programs. They also assist members in identifying how these conflicts affect the overall characteristics of the culture (norms, values, philosophies, rules, and climate).

In fulfilling their responsibilities, Head Start leaders often bring about needed changes that can cause tension and conflict. Effective leaders mold the shared beliefs and values that define the culture to facilitate how their organizations adapt to change and conflict and attain goals. (See Effective Transition Practices: Facilitating Continuity from the Training Guides for the Head Start Learning Community series for more information about how individuals deal with change.)

6. Valuing Learning

Empowerment and quality service cannot occur without a culture that values learning. In a learning organization, the leader is committed to creating conditions that enable people to have happy and productive lives.5 This means giving staff the time and support to try new ideas and to learn from the mistakes that will come from experimentation. It means devoting substantial time to issues of attitude, morale, and motivation. It also means constantly finding new and meaningful ways to show respect, appreciation, and recognition for the people who make it all happen.

Within a learning organization, staff and parent leaders serve as models for excellence by engaging in leadership behaviors that encourage continuous improvement. This process begins as leaders who guide organizational culture foster effective leadership behaviors throughout their organizations and focus on empowerment. Leaders play key roles in ensuring that their programs' culture supports good relationships that empower everyone to do his or her work.

Shaping Organizational Culture by Empowering Others*
Self-Development Techniques:
  • Practice ongoing self-awareness through review of past experiences, personal strengths, and competencies
  • Allow time for personal growth and self-development
  • Increase willingness to develop new behaviors
  • Develop patience with self and others
One-on-One Techniques:
  • Share positive experiences of empowerment
  • Develop patience with self and others
  • Cultivate openness to give, receive, and request feedback
  • Delegate key tasks, power to make decisions, and responsibility
Group Interaction Techniques:
  • Nurture a climate of collaboration, acceptance, support, and enjoyment
  • Share group and individual successes program-wide
  • Encourage others to be active participants
  • Identify and clarify common goals

Leadership Techniques:

  • Plan for changing organizational culture
  • Model belief and trust in people
  • Clarify organizational values
  • Encourage individual and program growth and development

Programmatic Techniques:

  • Establish open communication channels
  • Create workflow patterns that allow for quality, innovation, and creativity
  • Promote information sharing throughout the program
  • Provide opportunities for staff and parents to take on professional responsibilities and personal commitments

* Adapted from Judith Vogt and Kenneth Murrell, Empowerment in Organizations: How to Spark Exceptional Performance (San Diego, CA: University Associates, Inc., 1990), pp. 100-105.

1Edgar H. Schein, Organizational Culture and Leadership (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1987).

2 Paula Jorde Bloom, Blueprint for Action: Achieving Center-Based Change Through Staff Development (Mount Rainier: Gryphon House, 1987).

3 Warren Bennis, "Why Leaders Can't Lead," Training and Development Journal, Vol. 43, No. 4 (April, 1989): 38.

4 James Kouzes and Barry Posner, Credibility: How Leaders Gain and Lose It (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1993).

5 Peter Senge, "The Leader's New Work: Building Learning Organizations," Sloan Management Review, Vol. 32, No. 1, (Fall 1990): 21.

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"Influencing Organizational Culture." Leading Head Start into the Future. Training Guides for the Head Start Learning Community. HHS/ACF/ACYF/HSB. 1997. English.

Last Reviewed: June 2012

Last Updated: February 1, 2013