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Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Cultural Selection as Means for Survival

Cultural Selection as Means for Survival

Dr. Steve Gruenert
Department Chairperson
Department of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University

There are two good reasons to study organizational culture: 1) to understand the sociological processes that occur when a group of people get together for a period of time, in other words, because the researcher is curious, and 2) to understand the dynamics of group behavior so as to control the group, in other words, so a leader can get his followers to behave appropriately.
What I have found interesting as I study this stuff (now in my third decade of doing so) is how cultures change without the purposeful interventions of a leader. Cultures change over time, and it does not take a charismatic leader. Sometimes, it seems, the group will self-reorganize without leadership. Which brings us to my latest wild idea…

Natural selection is a concept that informs evolution.

A simple explanation of the process is as follows: It can be characterized as living organisms maintaining and passing on certain traits that help them adapt and thus survive in their environment. Relating that to the idea of schools:

Do organizations “select”?

Is there a cultural selection that occurs as a group of people adopt certain traits as a means to survive their environment?

Is cultural selection a concept that can inform anything?

Our schools are facing a new environment as the trust of their community comes into doubt and as the state and federal departments of education make new demands. Educators are being forced to defend themselves in the wake of threats to their professionalism. To simply survive these changes, school cultures may sense the need to adjust some things. Cultures are proof that organizations learn, and the ones that survive (perhaps I mean the ones who have survived) may be the ones able to adapt the quickest – which does not assume they are necessarily the best for kids – rather, the new way of doing things may built to accommodate the adults. Some of these cultural selections may not be in the best interest of learning.

Who or what determines the aspects or traits of a particular culture get passed on to the next generation? And when is it time to change? In natural selection, the environment, it would seem, influences what is kept and what is lost. This interaction between environment and organism provides a framework for the interaction between environment and culture. In natural selection the process is not hindered by human egos or biases, and it seems to be quite effective. In schools, cultural selection can be authored by a leader, even with this power; however, it seems as though an invisible process is happening, indiscernibly. The culture never really becomes exactly what the leader hopes for. Although my theory asserts that some cultures change without leadership, some leaders seem to be able to help provide the next generation of leaders/followers a platform from which to behave. They are the keepers of the stories who can influence the cultural selection process.

What to take away from all this? It would seem that cultures will change even if the leader does nothing. This change may be initiated and designed by the changes in the environment. If a threat is looming, then the culture will adapt to that and may go to crisis mode. The leader can help the culture interpret the environment as not a threat, and prevent the crisis mode from freezing improvement efforts.

The state of education in Indiana certainly has an uncertain feeling to it. I wonder how many schools are currently in a crisis mode because the leader did nothing? And if it stays that way for too long, it will feel normal, and people will cling to that type of mentality as a security blanket (or reason to do nothing).

Culture always wins.


Dr. Steve Gruenert is a leading authority with notable scholarship on the subject of school culture.  Please consider sharing your thoughts on his developing theories and perspectives by writing him at

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