Dealing With a Toxic Culture
written by Gary Rupert, Leadership Coach & CulturE Strategist for ||:Leaders Creating:||
The toxic culture of your band is your fault. Let me say that again. The toxic culture of your band is YOUR fault! Oh, I don’t mean that you are the cause of the toxicity, but as the leader of the band you are responsible for allowing it to continue. Toxic behavior in the band is not just the result of a few bad members. It happens because leadership either failed to notice warning signs that something was wrong or failed to communicate how serious an offense it is. It is leadership that decides and sets the parameters of unacceptable behavior, so when people miss the mark, it is often because it has not been clearly defined — or because they think they can get away with it.
Ultimately, while culture is something an entire band creates together, leaders must recognize their responsibility in encouraging and deterring certain behaviors. It is up to leadership, not staff, to ensure everyone respects the band’s core values and feels represented. A culture that has gone askew becomes unproductive and allows harmful norms that slowly find their way into the fabric of “this is how things are done around here.” Over time, this results in burying energy, camaraderie, and optimism among your band members.
So, we have a toxic culture. Now what?
Experience has taught me that dealing with a toxic culture is a three-pronged issue.
Recognition that you have a toxic culture — I know, this seems like it should be obvious, but you would be surprised at how many directors know their band is not functioning well, but they are unable to recognize that the lack of achievement is related to a toxic culture.
Identifying the root cause of the toxicity — Knowing there is a toxicity problem is not the same as knowing the cause. If you are unable to identify the cause, creating a solution is impossible.
Implement and cultivate a solution — Once the changes are in place, they will need time and attention to root themselves in the band’s culture.
It will help if we take a closer look at each of these areas.
Recognition — First we need to be able to have a working definition of what a toxic culture looks like. This, of course, assumes that we know what a positive culture looks like. A toxic culture is one where the group’s productivity and well-being is negatively impacted by fighting, drama, a lack of enthusiasm, and organizational dysfunction.
Root cause — It is often easier to recognize that you have a toxic culture than it is to identify why you have it. It is important to note that sometimes, the problem manifests itself in band, but the cause is something completely unrelated to band. This means that you might fix the problem for a short time, but if you have not addressed the root cause, it will reoccur.
Solutions — While the first two steps are critically important, they are worthless if you are not able to create, implement, and cultivate opportunities for change. It is important to understand that while the behavior which creates the toxic culture may belong to an individual, the solution must be a collective effort since the behavior has impacted the organizational culture.
In the interest of developing a deeper understanding of dealing with a toxic culture, we might examine a couple of scenarios…
SCENARIO ONE: Toxic Culture Created Through Conflict With Administration
Your Principal comes to you and tells you that he would like to change your show because the people at the football game do not like your choice of music. He also wants to have a meeting to decide what music you will play in the future. You believe that your choices are in the best interest of your student’s musical growth and development.
What will you do?
As a music educator, you feel the responsibility for choosing appropriate repertoire belongs to you. You make those selections based on the educational needs of your students. While you hope what you choose is entertaining, you are not in the field of entertainment. You are in the field of education. When the Administration decides they should have some say in that choice, you see it as a violation of your role as a music educator. The conflict creates a tension between you and the Administration, ultimately resulting in a toxic environment.
The most significant challenge to fixing this conflict is determining who has the responsibility of making the appropriate music selections for your students. Who is in control? In a previous article I suggested that young educators will invariably face challenges, hills which you must choose to climb or perhaps from which you need to walk away. (IS THAT HILL REALLY WORTH DYING ON?) Who is in control will be the determining factor in whether this is such a hill. If you are not in control, you have the following options:
1. Decide the Administration is right and give up your philosophical position by changing your show.
2. Choose not to change your show but agree to meet to come to some agreement on how music will be selected in the future.
3. Choose not to change your show because it goes against your core values as a music educator and be willing to take responsibility for your decision.
4. Recognize that giving the Administration the power to make your music decisions goes against your core values and choose to move on.
SCENARIO TWO: Toxic Culture Created Through Student Behavior
A few your students show little or no regard for being on time with their work or for rehearsals. The lack of accountability for being late has manifested itself in other areas of the program. It has become so prevalent that it is difficult to move the group forward.
What will you do?
On the surface, this scenario appears more manageable because as the band director, you are ultimately in control. I think the cause of the toxic culture in this setting is often misdiagnosed. Most people would think the problem is students being late, but in truth, the problem lies in your unwillingness or inability to hold them accountable for their behavior. Sadly, most directors handle this from a reactive position and while this does have some short-term success, a more proactive approach might be more effective and sustainable.
We can all agree that there are numerous challenges that leaders must confront for their bands to be successful. Perhaps none are more damaging to group success than a toxic culture. As band directors, we must recognize that we are not only dealing with our program culture, but a school culture that can, and will, directly impact the effectiveness of the band. It is easy to place the blame for toxic behaviors on individual or groups of students, but the reality is we must accept the responsibility. When we allow toxic behaviors to continue, we are in effect allowing a toxic culture to be created. We must do a better job of recognizing toxic behaviors, identifying their root causes, and having pathways for solutions. Remember, it is leadership who sets the parameters for unacceptable behavior. It is also leadership who moves a toxic culture into a positive learning culture, one in which our students and programs have a chance to be successful.
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Gary L. Rupert was a music educator for 40 years and was most recently the Band Director at Smithsburg High School in Smithsburg, Maryland where his bands consistently achieved Superior ratings at local, state and national levels. He is a sought-after conductor and adjudicator in the areas of symphonic bands and jazz ensembles. An avid blogger whose daily entries are followed by people in over 57 countries, Mr. Rupert is the author of a daily inspirational book for students and teachers, “Today, No Every Day.” He is also a sought after speaker on leadership, motivation and creating a positive learning environment.
Gary Rupert has been named an Outstanding Maryland Music Educator, a Teacher of Excellence in both the Frederick and Washington County public schools, and has been twice nominated as a Disney Teacher of Excellence.
Gary can be reached at email@example.com
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