Organizational Climate and Culture Are Important

Puzzle with one piece missing illustrating how climate is part of culture

I teach a course on organizational climate where an issue we frequently discuss is the difference between organizational climate and culture. These two terms are often used interchangeably, but there is an important distinction between them. Climate is concerned with day-to-day operations and can be changed by addressing policies and procedures. Culture is more deeply seated and has to do with what you might think of as the DNA of an organization–what do employees think and value? Both are important and should be a focus of concern.

What Is Organizational Climate?

Organizational climate concerns the policies and practices of an organization. It is reflected by what behaviors are encouraged versus discouraged. It is most often focused in a specific area, such as climate for good customer service, climate for high ethical practices, or climate for physical safety. An organization with a good safety climate, for example, will emphasize following safety protocols and avoiding unsafe practices. Likely, managers talk often about safety, hold safety meetings, and will correct employees who fail to wear safety gear or take unnecessary risks. In an organization with a good ethical climate, employees are encouraged to be honest and trustworthy in their dealings with others. Building a climate involves creating policies that specify required behavior, and then enforcing them. Managers are expected to serve as role models in following those policies, and they are expected to correct violations. It is important for management to be clear in what is expected, and consistent in applying those expectations. The kind of climate that is emphasized depends on the type of organization. Construction where there is high risk for physical injury is likely to emphasize safety. Financial service organizations that deal with client money are likely to emphasize ethics.

What Is Organizational Culture?

Organizational culture goes far beyond climate in dealing with more than just what is encouraged or discouraged. It is hard to define culture precisely as there are many definitions, but it can best be thought of as dealing with several core elements which are not part of climate.
  • Beliefs: In an organization with a strong culture, employees share beliefs about key issues. For example, in an organization with a culture of safety, employee believe their actions can prevent accidents.
  • Norms: Employees develop expectations about how everyone should behave, and those expectations are enforced by employees themselves. With a strong culture, employees buy into how and what should be done. In an organization with a culture of customer service, for example, employees expect that everyone places high priority on serving the customer. Anyone who provides less that good service will be spoken to, not just by supervisors, but by peers as well.
  • Symbols: An important element of organizational culture is reflected in symbols that represent it. This can be seen in logos that represent the organization, and posters in the physical environment that remind everyone about what the organization is about.
  • Values: One of the most important elements of a culture is that employees share values that are key to the culture. In an ethical organization, employees personally value honesty and integrity.

How Climate and Culture Go Together

Organizational climate and culture go together, but the relationship is in one direction. Climate is part of culture, but culture is not part of climate. An organization can build a climate without building a culture by enforcing policies without gaining buy-in. This happens when organizations achieve compliance without acceptance. Employees follow the rules because they know they will be punished if they do not, but the employees do not believe in the rules. For example, employees might wear safety goggles because its use is enforced, but they do not believe that it is effective. An organization that builds a safety culture will achieve acceptance as employees believe that the policies are important, and value the underlying objective. Thus, an organization with a safety culture has employees who wear goggles because they believe it keeps them safe and they value that safety. Building a climate is a good place for an organization to start. It begins by writing relevant policies and then enforcing them. Building culture is far more difficult because it requires getting everyone on the same page, with behavior in alignment with beliefs and values. It begins by specifying key values (e.g., customer service), and then working hard to bring everyone on board. This requires a multi-front initiative including hiring, job design, leadership, and training. Part of the effort is much like a marketing campaign, spreading the word through messaging by top leadership, and by creating symbols to represent and reinforce the culture. There are two main advantages to taking an organization from climate to culture. First, having climate without culture requires work for managers in continually monitoring and correcting employees when needed. An organization with a strong culture has employee buy-in so that managers can spend less time enforcing rules because employees will engage in appropriate behavior on their own. Second, there is sustainability in that culture is self-perpetuating. When employees believe in the culture, they will continue to support it as managers come and go. Every organization has a culture, as it is a natural by-product of human interaction. The real question for organization leaders is whether their culture supports their goals and objectives. Some organizations have cultures that are in alignment with the mission, but many do not. Thus, we have sales organizations that do not provide good service, and we have construction organizations that are lax about safety. Building organizational climate and culture that supports the mission can make organizations more effective in achieving results. 

Photo by Ann H at Pexels.

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