Thursday, November 1, 2012

Does Organizational Culture Matter?

Yes! The reactions to an infamous letter to graduate students from the Academic Program Committee of a major astronomy department make the point clearly enough. So does the damaging effect of continued sexism in physics. I thought we had made more progress on these issues. Many years ago, the head of my department told proudly how he would come in on weekend mornings and walk around to see which junior faculty were at work. I don’t recall if I was tenured at the time, but I do recall being miserable. Although I remained at that university, I chose not to propagate the mythology of 80-hour work weeks or the prevailing attitudes that women were less qualified for the top ranks.

Dysfunctional and excellent organizations both contain good people. In my experience it is not the people but the institutional culture that distinguishes successful organizations, especially those that develop and retain their talent. To be sure, individuals can cause a lot of harm in any organization, for example by engaging in harassment. But in some organizations harassment is suppressed and ignored by the leadership while in others it is confronted and eliminated.

Edgar Schein is a management professor who has studied corporate culture over many decades. His book Organizational Culture and Leadership is a tour de force in how institutional culture shapes leaders and vice versa. His book is also a user’s manual for those who would pursue culture change. You don’t have to be an anthropologist to find this manual very useful.

Leadership matters. Sometimes postdocs ask me for advice about the kind of university they should aspire to join as faculty. Lately I’ve been suggesting that they favor employers whose leadership and institutional culture support the values that are important to them. For example, if you are interested in K-12 outreach, don’t go to a place where it is frowned upon, and don’t believe for a moment that by doing so you are settling for less than the best.

Institutional culture is slow to change. Over her 12 years as Princeton’s president, Shirley Tilghman began a long slow process of making Princeton a more supportive place for women and minorities. I admire her success and see it as a model for other university presidents. So it was with great delight that yesterday I was one of 30 members of my university community – students, staff, postdocs and faculty – who met with MIT’s new president Rafael Reif to highlight the importance of diversity and inclusion and to offer our ideas and support for the vision he presented in his inaugural address.

“Be the change you wish to see in the world” – Ghandi’s quote is a model for all who seek to change culture. Find allies. They may come from directions you didn’t imagine. Yesterday, the air was electric as a student praised our Director of LBGT Services for how she establishes inclusion, respect, openness, participation, and safety, which she then described to our president. It makes me so proud to work with students, staff, and other faculty members to promote culture change in the university.

Organizations that help people achieve their best will outperform others. Faculty would do well to heed the concerns of graduate students and postdocs. With time and good leadership, culture change is possible. I would like to see it spread across the fields of astronomy and physics. Will you join me?