On his first day in office U.S. President Joe Biden took steps in establishing an organizational climate for his organization. As he administered the oath of office to hundreds of his senior staff members, he clarified his expectations by stating that “everybody is entitled to be treated with decency and dignity.” Because this ceremony was covered in the press, we got a rare chance to observe how one top leader begins to establish an organizational climate. He is not alone as many effective leaders know how to create organizational climate.
What Kind of Climate Is Biden Creating?
Organizational climate is the shared beliefs among employees about how they are expected to behave and the consequences of failing to meet those expectations. It is reflected in an organization’s policies and practices as well as in what behaviors are encouraged and discouraged. Biden made clear what he expects and the consequences of failing to meet those expectations.
Although not stated in these terms, Biden’s statement shows that his purpose is to build a climate of psychological safety. Organizations with such climates have employees who feel safe from being disrespected or mistreated. People are free to be themselves and express opinions without fearing the consequences. Such organizations encourage open dialogue and lively debate as long as it is done respectfully. Psychological safety is a foundation for other climates that directly contribute to organizational success such as in areas of customer service, diversity, and innovation.
Leaders Know How to Create Organizational Climate
Building a climate in an organization starts at the top. The top leader is in the best position to influence the entire organization. They do this by their words and deeds, and in how they interact with everyone throughout the organization and not just those who report directly to them. To build a climate, top leaders do the following.
- Model Expected Behavior. Leaders need to “walk the talk” and engage in the behavior that they say they want. Top leaders are very visible throughout the organization, and what they do is a topic of wide interest. Seeing the top leader model the behavior he or she says is expected of others sends a message that the issue is being taken seriously.
- Make Expectations Clear. Biden’s statement made his expectations clear. Even better they came at a critical and meaningful time as his senior leaders were beginning their jobs. None of them can say that they were unaware of what the boss expected.
- Messaging Is Important. The oath of office ceremony was only one occasion where the climate expectation was expressed. There needs to be follow-up messaging to the senior staff, and to others throughout the organization. The climate needs to be reinforced by statements made both verbally and in writing to make clear how people should behave.
- Written Policies Can Help. Written policies should state expectations and values. A policy is a formal statement that reflects the climate that is being built. Although alone they are only words on a page, they can be an important tool when combined with other efforts to build a climate.
- Policies Should Be Enforced. As policies are developed, thought should be given to how they will be enforced. What happens if someone violates a policy? Failure to enforce policies is likely to be interpreted by employees that management does not really support them. Some serious policy offenses might deserve immediate termination of employment. An effective approach to more minor policy violations is the progressive discipline idea. At a first offense an employee meets with a supervisor who makes sure the policy is clear. If more offenses occur, disciplinary actions become more and more harsh.
Creating an organizational climate requires attention and effort from those at the top. What Biden did in the swearing in ceremony was a good start, but creating a climate of psychological safety will require a lot more effort on his part by continuing to model and talk about decency and dignity.
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