What Is Organizational Climate?

Beth and Mike are recent Marketing graduates who met up on Friday evening to celebrate their first week on new jobs. Beth noted that all anyone seemed to talk to her about what the importance of good customer service. They had a Wednesday morning staff meeting where the main agenda item was how to avoid customer service failures. Mike’s experience was quite different. At his company people’s focus was on maximizing sales and not wasting time. His supervisor talked to him about one of his colleagues who wasted months trying to cultivate a relationship with a customer, only to have that customer buy from someone else. Clearly Beth and Mike had very different first week experiences. They quickly learned that the climates of their companies were different.

What Is Organizational Climate?

Organizational climate concerns the policies and practices of an organization or unit of an organization. It concerns the behaviors that are encouraged and supported. It is communicated in several ways.

  • Policies: These are the written rules for the behaviors that people should and should not do. Policies describe how things should be done.
  • Practices: These are the behaviors that employees and their supervisors engage in, in other words, how policies are or are not enacted.
  • What is encouraged and discouraged. These are the expectations that supervisors and other employees express about what each employee should and should not so. For Beth is was customer service and for Mike it was efficiency.
  • Where the rewards are. Nothing expresses expectations like rewards. These can be monetary, such as bonuses for high sales volume, or nonmonetary, such as praise for a job well done.

How Is Climate Different from Culture

The terms climate and culture are often used interchangeably, but they are not the same concept. Climate is part of culture and reflects the sorts of behaviors that are encouraged and presumably engaged in within an organization. Culture is far more than encouraged behavior patterns. Culture includes artifacts (e.g., the sorts of clothes people wear), symbols (e.g., the company logo), technology (e.g., salespeople’s use of tablets to ring up sales), and values (e.g., profitability). Although these aspects of culture might support the climate, they go beyond climate, and much of organizational culture might not link to climate.

Types of Climate

Organizations and units of organizations vary in what they encourage. One place to see different kinds of climate is in the academic literature where hundreds of research studies on different kinds of climate can be found. Some of the more popular are climates for:

  • Customer Service. This is an emphasis on providing good customer service, as was the case in the Beth example. Companies with good customer service climate adopt a strategy on focusing on customer needs and placing the customer first.
  • Diversity. Companies with diversity climates encourage employees to treat all people the same, regardless of their differences. Such companies are likely to have good minority hiring records.
  • Ethics. A company with a strong ethical climate emphasizes that employees should maintain high ethical standards in their dealing with others. Such companies are likely to have fewer legal problems.
  • Justice. This is an emphasis on treating everyone fairly. This includes not only fairness in reward systems (e.g., how salary raises are distributed), but in how people are talked to and treated.
  • Safety. Working in industries, such as aviation, healthcare, and manufacturing, comes with a significant risk for accidents and injuries. Many organizations in these industries put a strong emphasis on keeping employees and others safe, by requiring that safety protocols be followed.

Why Is Organizational Climate Important?

Climate is important because employees are likely to engage in the behaviors that are encouraged. In Mike’s company the emphasis is on efficiency and productivity, so that focuses employee attention in those areas. Employees are likely to adopt an efficiency/productivity mindset that guides their interactions with others and their work. In Beth’s company, the emphasis is on customer service. There will be less focus on efficiency/productivity and more on serving customer needs. If a potential customer leaves a message, Beth is likely to call back right away and will be patient if the customer is longwinded on the phone. Mike, on the other hand, will be more strategic in how he spends time, and he might not be in a hurry to return the call if he does not believe the customer is a good prospect. The amount a customer is likely to purchase will determine the time he is willing to invest.

Companies can use climate to encourage the behaviors they wish from their employees. To a great extent climate is encouraged by the sorts of issues and problems the company deals with. For example, financial services companies are likely to develop strong ethical climates that discourage unethical or illegal acts involving money. Construction companies, where people work with dangerous machinery, are likely to develop strong safety climates. Even within the same organization, there can be department differences in what is emphasized. In a manufacturing company, for example, ethical climate is highly relevant to the accounting department and safety climate to the assembly plants

How To Build Organizational Climates

Organizational climates are built through both actions and messaging. Climate is both a bottom up and top down phenomenon. Policies are often set at the top, but practices occur at the bottom. Linking the two can be challenging, but not impossible.

  • Climate is a strategic decision. Top management should decide what is important and what should be emphasized. Climate often means tradeoffs because resources devoted to one thing are not available for another. Safety, for example, requires effort and time. Is it ok to take 5 minutes to put on safety equipment if that means a little less productivity?
  •  Policies should be clearly communicated through the organization. It is not enough to just write policies. They must be disseminated and discussed throughout the organization.
  • What is encouraged should be expected of everyone. Managers need to model the sorts of behavior expected. If assemblers are expected to wear safety gear on the shop floor, managers (and even visiting executives) should too.
  • Climate needs to be discussed. This discussion should occur at all levels. To build an ethical climate, for example, ethics needs to be a frequent topic of conversation at staff meetings. Ethical lapses reported in the news, even from other companies, can be a good conversation starter.
  • Supervisors should take corrective action. When employees engage in behaviors that are discouraged, supervisors should take appropriate corrective action. Depending on the seriousness of the breach, this might be just a friendly discussion of the situation and how the employee might have better handled it. Such incidents can also be the topic of conversation at a staff meeting, not to embarrass individuals, but to help employees understand what is expected.

Building the climate you want can take time, but a strong climate can help keep employees focused on what management considers the important priorities.  

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