This past weekend I taught my organizational climate and culture class to executive Doctor of Business Administration students. It is always a fascinating class because the students are mid to high level executives with years of professional experience to share. During our discussion of organizational climate, Ashraf Dehlawi, who works in a small bio-tech firm, noted that climate can be a lot more fluid than suggested in our academic readings. In other words, organizational climate is complex and dynamic.
What Is Organizational Climate?
Organizational climate concerns the policies and practices of organizations. It reflects the behaviors that are encouraged or discouraged. Climates are typically focused on organizational goals, such as a climate for customer service or a climate for innovation. Climate has been a popular topic for some time in the academic business literature as well as practitioner-focused sources. Most sources talk about specific types of climates and how you might create them, such as this Harvard Business Review article on recognition. This is because it has been shown that climates can affect behavior. For example, firms that promote customer service will have more sales; firms that promote safety will have fewer accidents.
Almost all climate studies focus on a single type of climate in isolation. It is rare for a study to include multiple climates so we are unable to see how combinations might impact organizations. Currently we can say that particular climates are related to certain outcomes, but we are unable to say if there are unintended consequences of encouraging a particular climate in the absence of another, or if there are certain combinations that are most effective. An exception is this study linking psychological safety to innovation.
Organizational Climate Is Complex and Dynamic
Dehlawi works in a small business where people can wear multiple hats. His observation was that what is encouraged varies with the particular issue at hand, so for him climate is not always the same. In a small organization, for example, it might be all hands on deck for diversity on Monday, while on Tuesday there’s a drive for innovation, and at the end of the week safety takes priority. It isn’t that the organization has no climate, but rather what is important depends on what everyone is focused on—hiring a new colleague on Monday, new product development on Tuesday, and testing new products on Friday. All three are important, and combined they reflect the complex climate of an organization. But not every activity is occurring every day, so what is important can vary.
If we look at large firms where people are specialized, it is much the same thing, but individuals have a single function so they experience a more static climate. Innovation will be front and center for R&D and safety for production. Depending on circumstances, innovation might not be very relevant to rank-and-file assemblers, and safety might not be very important for engineers working out schematics at a computer. Diversity on the other hand might be something that affects everyone, so that climate might be a focus throughout the organization.
All this is to say that there can be multiple climates in an organization, and the exact mix can vary by each employee’s job responsibilities. Some of those climates can be complementary and go together, whereas others can be in conflict. For example, working safely requires time and effort to put on safety equipment and follow safety protocols. Unsafe workarounds that might speed tasks are discouraged. Thus, there is a tradeoff between safety climate that minimizes risk and production climate that maximizes output.
Our class discussion underscored how climates are not unidimensional. Organizations do not have single goals and goals can vary across a firm. To better understand organizational climate requires that we take a broader view and recognize that organizations emphasize more than one thing, and that what is emphasized can depend on your function. What my organization expects of me as a professor is different than what is expected of those who work in the finance office which is different from what is expected of the groundskeepers. Clearly organizational climate is complex and dynamic and should be both managed and studied in that way.
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