Published: September 10, 2012

It took two years. When the new superintendent first addressed the bully problem in her school district, the bullies sat at a table by themselves in the gym commenting under their breaths about that year's cycle of new leadership. Their disruptions were rude but everyone just took it in stride. They had seen many superintendents come and go over the years. They all eventually abandoned ship. Culture eats change for breakfast. The bullying culture was deeply rooted and it was sure to survive this leader, too.

A power struggle ensued during the first year. The superintendent, now with the support of the board and the building principals, took every opportunity to define the new culture in which differences would be respected and innovations would arise from constructive challenge. The bullies were not happy. But rather than taking on the leadership team, they strategically intimidated their peers with an us-or-them ultimatum. Worse than being ostracized, your ability to advance professionally would be undermined. It was a house divided.

A spotlight was shone on the bullies in year two. Their behaviors, whether overt or covert, were named and showcased. Everyone, regardless of tenure, rank, or seniority, was empowered to “throw a flag” if they witnessed a “foul.” By mid-year, the tide had turned. Accountability had taken charge. If words or behaviors didn’t fit the new climate, they stood out.

The final blow occurred during a staff meeting when one of the recently dis-empowered bullies stood up and chastised her peers for wasting her valuable time with this useless emphasis on culture. She informed the room that she had better ways to spend her time as she stomped out of the meeting. Knowing glances were traded throughout the room. The ringleader had just excused herself from the team.

Year three was greeted like a breath of fresh air. A celebration of differences and a bravery around innovation now fueled each day. The culture had shifted and was now owned by the team. The surgery was successful.


Photo of Steve Ritter, the co-founder of The Center for Team Excellence

Steve Ritter

Steve Ritter is an internationally recognized expert on team dynamics whose clients include Fortune 500 companies, professional sports teams, and many educational organizations. He is on the faculty of the Center for Professional Excellence at Elmhurst University where he earned the President's Award for Excellence in Teaching. Steve is the former Senior Vice President, Director of Human Resources at Leaders Bank, named the #1 Best Place to Work in Illinois in 2006 and winner of the American Psychological Association's Psychologically Healthy Workplace Award in 2010. Steve provides ongoing workplace culture consultation to many thriving companies including Kraft Foods, Advocate Health Care, Kellogg's, the Chicago White Sox, AthletiCo, and Northwestern Mutual Financial Network.