Organizational climate: What is it, and does it differ from culture?

man with yellow hair is settling in a new organizational climate

We talk often about “organizational culture,” but a new term has come en vogue in the last 2-3 years: organizational climate. The terms “organizational culture” and “organizational climate” are often used interchangeably, but the concepts are actually a bit different. 

Consider this example: two friends from college both get marketing jobs. About a month into the jobs, they meet up for happy hour. One friend speaks constantly of a focus on customer service, delighting the customer, and making sure the customer’s experience is always top of mind. The other friend says his organization is incredibly sales-driven, and everything runs through sales. Sales, sales, sales. That’s the focus.

Clearly, while they have similar job titles, their cultures and climates are very different. But how exactly?

An organizational climate concerns the behaviors that are encouraged and supported in a company, and is communicated through:

  • Policies: Usually written down in handbook or Intranet form, these are explicit guidelines around behaviors, actions, and processes.
  • Practices: Essentially, this is how the policies play out day-to-day.
  • Behaviors encouraged: Be it a focus on customer service or sales, or certain ways to treat customers, or even examples of dress.
  • Behaviors discouraged: At one of the theoretical companies above, a focus on customer service might be discouraged if it extends the sales cycle. At the other company, a quick sale with poor customer service involved might be discouraged.
  • Incentives and rewards: Bonuses, praise, time off, perks, benefits. 

In this way, “organizational climate” is actually a subset of “organizational culture.” Culture is much broader, and reflects:

  • Artifacts: Clothes that people wear, for example.
  • Symbols: Logos, branding
  • Technology: What tech stack is being used
  • Values: Mission, vision, purpose, focal points

Organizational culture has been described as the “personality” of your business, and organizational climate is the mood of it. The personality is fixed at a high level, but the mood might vary week-to-week based on what’s being encouraged and discouraged. 

Think about a bad revenue quarter. That doesn’t necessarily change the overall culture, but it will change the organizational climate -- because the revenue downturn might represent a round of layoffs, cancelled bonuses, etc. People’s mood about working there, i.e. the organizational climate, will sour. The culture stays generally the same, but the day-to-day experience of working there, the climate, changes dramatically.

Table of contents
How would one measure organizational climate, then?
The toxic employee problem
How do you improve organizational climate?
The bottom line on organizational climate

How would one measure organizational climate, then?

Since climate is more of a day-to-day, week-to-week mood and morale concept, one idea is the “pulse survey,” which are shorter, more frequent employee surveys. They usually consist of 1-2 questions and a 1-10 or 1-5 rating on working there, and can be sent as frequently as weekly. 

They are not as robust as bigger, annual employee surveys, but not supposed to be. The name implies that you get a “pulse” for the organization at that moment, or within that week. One week the average might be a 3 on a 1-5, and the next week the average might be a 5. That means something was different from Week A to Week B around the organizational climate. 

Now, a pulse survey has the same drawbacks as any other type of survey, i.e. it’s administered at a set point in time, which could be after a bad meeting, a tight deadline, etc. So there is a possibility of bias or negativity creeping in where it wouldn’t normally. But, that’s all part of organizational climate. If unreal deadlines are harming morale, that’s something that management needs to know, see, understand, and rectify. 

You can also measure organizational climate by going around and having discussions with people about their relationship to the brand, the work, and the mission -- but those discussions are inherently more anecdotal and not as easy to track data-wise. 

The toxic employee problem

Because organizational climate reflects mood, a toxic employee -- and even moreso a toxic manager -- can have very real repercussions on climate. Every organization has, unfortunately, hired at least a few toxic employees. There is no full-proof system to avoid doing so, despite what business journalism may tell you. 

That said, if you have a good idea of your culture and climate, and you know what types of people tend to be successful there, and you have a hiring process where the team gets to weigh in on candidates, as opposed to just the hiring manager … you will generally not hire toxicity as much. Less toxic employees = better for everyone, and definitely a better organizational climate. Interestingly, we’ve talked about “cultural fit” for years, and that term has lost some luster. Perhaps we should be hiring for better climate fit?

How do you improve organizational climate?

Essentially, you want to be perceived -- and rightfully so -- as a great place to work and interact with colleagues, in which case you’d have both a positive culture and a positive climate. Obviously this sounds a bit like nirvana. How exactly can an organization get there? There are a few core areas of focus:

Understand where the motivations lie, and where the de-motivators lie: 

Understanding the motivations of your employees is always a solid best practice, and without doing that, organizational climate will suffer. There are small examples -- if we return to full-in-office times in 2021 or later, consider the fancy coffee maker in a break room. If there is some revenue erosion, a manager might want to remove it as a cost-cutting play. But if employees congregate around said coffee maker and have organic interactions that lead to new ways of work, that’s a good thing, cost be darned. 

In COVID times, one small (large?) example is “Zoom Fatigue.” If people are demotivated by having six hours straight of video calls, that means organizational climate is suffering. Create a policy whereby calls can’t be scheduled between 12pm and 2pm, for example, affording employees the opportunity to eat with friends, help their kids with online school, take a walk, or whatever they want to do. You make a small tweak to scheduling and you can improve climate by boosting morale and motivation.

Select leaders better: 

There is nothing worse than a place with poor management across the board, and virtually nothing better than a place with strong, respected management across the board. Unfortunately, the latter types of organizations are less common, and one reason is that leaders are often selected related to task achievement or output, i.e. sales volume. Those are important qualifications within a company, but they don’t necessarily mean someone is ready to have direct reports and guide workflows of other individuals. 

(In fact, many high-achieving solo performers in divisions like sales end up making terrible managers.) 

When selecting people for managerial roles, talk to employees. Have they been on projects with this person? How did the person contribute to the group? Are they respected? Trusted? Liked? Look for people with a high degree of pre-existing respect, not pre-existing “big numbers.”

And then, train them: 

Managers are often given a depressingly low amount of training for their new role, with one survey indicating the average age of first managerial promotion to be 30, and the average age of first managerial training to be 42. That’s quite a gap. 

Also remember this: we speak often of “employee experience” or “employee engagement,” and while semantically managers are employees, we never speak of manager engagement. And yet:

Management really isn’t a great experience for most people; managers report more stress and burnout, worse work-life balance, and worse physical well-being than the individual contributors on the teams they lead. Approximately two-thirds of managers are either not engaged or actively disengaged in their work and workplace. Less than 30% of managers strongly agree that someone at work encourages their development. According to the people receiving manager development training, the programs in place don’t work.

Focus on “manager engagement,” which often means taking certain tasks away from them. Managers should be focusing on the development of their people, not spending all day in meetings or doing budgets or other back-of-house work. If you can automate some of that, or give it to a software suite or admins, that makes more sense. Engaged, trained managers mean a better organizational climate for all. 

Do surveys, track data, and respond

Do pulse surveys or conversations. Track the data and responses week-to-week. When weeks are particularly bad or particularly good, dig deeper as to why. Send out emails and hold team meetings explaining what the trends are, and what the action items will be based off the trends. 

A big one is deadlines, or too much work piling up, or unclear priority around which work should be handled first. Employees can feel overwhelmed. If that’s a recurring theme of climate surveys, communicate to your team about what the plan is to make it better. 

Allow for work-life balance

Especially right now, with COVID throwing education out of whack, people are very stressed and experiencing remote work burnout at epic rates. While being your employee is certainly a core part of who they are, it’s not all of who they are -- and you need to give them space and grace where you can, including a moratorium on video calls during certain hours, understanding when childcare or life responsibilities precludes work for a few hours, and more. 

A culture that lacks some semblance of work-life balance possibility will see a weak organizational climate day-to-day. The balance must be there. And, if you’re good at training and engaging managers, it’s more likely to be there!

Underscore psychological safety

That’s a term that came into the mainstream after Google’s “Project Aristotle,” or its quest to build a perfect team. Think of a junior employee questioning the CEO of a company. In most places, that would be treated with gasps. 

Well, while it’s not necessarily going to be common, a place with a high degree of psychological safety would allow for that, as leaders and employees alike know that it’s OK to challenge and push back on people, so long as it’s done in a safe and respectful manner with the end goal being a high-quality work output. If teams feel secure discussing the hits and misses of work, i.e. have a strong psychological safety, the organization is more likely to have a strong organizational climate.

The bottom line on organizational climate

It may feel semantic to discuss “climate” vs. “culture,” just as it once did to discuss “experience” vs. “engagement,” but these are important terms to understand. 

Your organizational climate reflects the day-to-day experience and mood of the people working for you, so maximizing it means more engagement, happiness, and ideally more productivity as well. The above is the beginnings of a guide, but if you have additional questions about organizational climate, we’d love to help.

With F4S you can measure and map your team’s organizational climate — sign up for free today or contact us to schedule a quick demo.

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