By Dr. Saara Liinamaa, Department of Sociology & Anthropology
The phrase “culture change” has been in the news lately thanks to Hockey Canada’s most recent debacle. There have been widespread calls for a cultural change at the sporting body. Even the Prime Minister has weighed in: “There’s a culture to change.”
You are not alone if you find yourself wondering what this means or how culture change happens.
As a culture scholar who has studied artistic, organizational and even ice rink culture, seeing so much attention to culture change is thrilling. At the same time, I know culture change is more multifaceted than recent conversations about Hockey Canada might suggest. Culture change is a complex process, not a readily packaged product or an easily revised strategic plan.
Savvy how-to-guides aside, we need to manage our expectations around what culture change is and how it can be successfully implemented within organizations. Culture change is not a magic bullet for ending misogyny, racism, classism, ableism or anti-LGBTQ2I+ sentiments. Culture change is not like an oil change or wardrobe change. It is not something we can accomplish on a tight deadline or with a handful of adjustments.
Rather, the promise of culture change rests in a combination of the following: Adopting a nuanced definition of culture; examining cultural norms and attitudes; and understanding the social relations and dynamics that support culture change.
How are we defining culture?
Culture is a confusing term. If you check a simple dictionary entry, you will see it defined as a way of life, the attitudes and behaviours of particular groups and artistic objects and achievements. For this reason, when people speak of hockey culture, it can be hard to know exactly what they mean.
Recent work on hockey, indigeneity and racialized minorities in Canada demonstrates how all of these definitions of culture shape our understanding of hockey. Hockey is diversely played, enjoyed, pictured and organized in Canada, but not everyone has the same access to the game or recognition for playing it. This sort of scholarship helps us appreciate how hockey culture can cultivate both belonging and exclusion.
Culture change requires an expanded definition of culture. If we restrict our understanding to just one dimension — like the attitudes of Hockey Canada’s leadership — the process will only ever be half formed.
Cultural norms and attitudes
With this expanded notion of culture, the overlap between organizational culture (Hockey Canada) and the culture of a sport (hockey) becomes clearer. This intersection is central to the thorny issue of how prevailing attitudes and norms can help or hinder organizational changes.
It is appealing for organizations to blame their own inability to support equity and belonging on the wide failure of Canadian society to do so. Indeed, Hockey Canada tried this strategy. However, a serious commitment to culture change means examining an organization’s culture within its wider social context.
There is now considerable research on the prevalence and damage caused by all types of physical and psychological violence within both youth and elite level sport in Canada. In hockey, to address sport culture and violence norms demands taking seriously the violence within the game, interpersonal relationships, organizations and media.
Social relations and dynamics
Culture change also requires paying attention to and remedying inequitable social contexts and relationships. Perhaps a good place for Hockey Canada to start would be addressing the second tier status of women’s and para hockey or meaningfully addressing racism within all levels of the game. But the inability of an organization to act or respond effectively is not just about the formal or explicit dynamics in place.
Culture change is also about the everyday practices and informal interactions that set the stage. In research I co-authored on everyday sexism in Canada’s screen industry, this included things like being excluded from informal activities or being subjected to workplace microaggressions that are harmful but hard to label. These social dynamics are slippery. An informal culture of exclusion or devaluation helps formal justifications for inequities make more sense within an organization.
Committing to a diversity of voices and participants is central to the process of changing a culture, but this alone does not equal culture change. Instead, genuine culture change also recognizes the informal penalties and power differentials that hinder transformations of the status quo.
If culture change for an organization only translates into a new series of policy documents, tokenism, enhanced program evaluations or a revamped code of conduct, this will not work. This is simply one dimensional change.
Organizations should commit to culture change. But they should know that making this commitment is just the start. Be warned: culture change is not automatically positive or progressive. Positive culture change is a rewarding yet challenging collaborative process.