Workplace Culture vs. Climate – why most focus on climate and may suffer for it

Businesses often forget about the culture, and ultimately, they suffer for it.

Culture is a hot topic. It was the Merriam-Webster “Word of the Year” for 2014. Leaders and experts across the world are talking about how to develop an agile culture, implement a lean culture, overcome the culture clash in acquisitions, and many other areas of culture change. Unfortunately, the reality is that most of these leaders and experts are actually focusing their efforts on climate and not dealing with the deeper, more powerful subject of culture. I didn’t understand the difference until the past few years.

What is Organizational Climate?

Organizational climate is the shared perceptions and attitudes about the organization. The most visible area of a focus on culture that is actually climate is all the effort to measure and improve employee engagement. This focus on engagement did yield results for some organizations. Unfortunately, according to Gallup’s Employee Engagement Study, the number of employees engaged at work has barely moved over the course of the last 15 years.

Gallup Engagement Results

You know the drill. Employees are asked, for example, whether they know what’s expected of them, whether their opinions seem to count, and if their manager is paying attention to them. Organizations compile the results and “action plans” are developed. It’s not just engagement surveys where people think they are getting to culture. The vast majority of so-called “culture” surveys and “great workplace” surveys primarily measure climate. Employees might be asked if the mission is clear, benefits are good, management shows appreciation, teamwork is encouraged, or whether the organization is effective at managing change. Climate, climate, climate.

The Deeper Side of Organizational Culture

Organizational culture is the shared beliefs and assumptions about the organization’s expectations and values. These “unwritten rules” and perceived expectations drive our behavior in organizations. Edgar Schein, arguably the #1 culture expert in the world,  once said “90% of our behavior in organizations is driven by cultural rules.” When faced with problems, challenges, or goals it often helps to understand the aspects of culture that either inhibit or support effectiveness. To surface these aspects of culture, employees should be asked, for example, if they are expected or implicitly required to:

  • check decisions with superiors
  • work to achieve self-set goals
  • point out flaws
  • take on challenging tasks
  • never make a mistake
  • not “rock the boat”
  • make a “good impression”
  • know the business

These examples are from the Human Synergistics Organizational Culture Inventory, the most widely used and heavily researched culture assessment in the world.  We all have experienced the positive and negative impact of these perceived expectations. In some cases they help to propel our thinking forward to “act on what we know” and accomplish great things with constructive behavior. In other cases, they lead to passive or aggressive behavior that undermines our effectiveness. Some organizations may actually be paralyzed by fear and plagued with inaction when they need the exact opposite.

Why focusing on climate can be a problem

Schein wrote in the The Handbook of Organizational Culture and Climate: “A climate can be locally created by what leaders do, what circumstances apply, and what environments afford. A culture can evolve only out of mutual experience and shared learning.”

There is value in understanding how both climate and culture are influencing our work to effectively manage problems, challenges, or goals. The results of a focus on changing organizational climate may lead to some quick wins, like managers temporarily engaging employees more effectively, but the improvements may be short-lived unless a culture shift occurs. I’ll share a clear example.

A culture change cut short after climate success

I was appointed president of a manufacturing organization. It was clearly a command and control culture. I vividly recall a top leader yelling at me: “You are from the new school that’s all about hugs and kisses, I am from the old school that’s about performance and giving people a swift kick in the ass when they need it.” You can imagine what the culture was like as this aggressive behavior at the top led to extremely passive and conventional behavior on the front lines since most employees only did what they were told.

We embarked on a journey to quickly transform the organization. We managed three phases of improvement over a two year period to support shared-learning and results:

Stabilize: We had a massive company-wide focus on improving quality as we managed a roadmap of improvements related to clarifying the vision, team behaviors we should expect from each other, strategies, goals, measures, management systems, communication systems and motivation (reward & recognition). We focused on roadmap of organization-level improvements (website no longer available) to create a “common core” in this phase while reinforcing new expectations to plan ahead, make and meet commitments, and cooperate with others.

Grow: We learned from the first phase of improvement together as a team and applied those insights to a company-wide focus on sales growth. We continued all the habits we started in the first phase and refined the approach as we included new strategies, goals, and measures targeted at growth. We implemented regional cross-functional teams so we could learn from our organization-level focus in the stabilize phase and apply it to a sub-team approach in this phase. The expected behaviors defined in the first phase were now applied in this new team structure.

Innovate: We launched a cross-functional innovation team that met weekly and launched industry-leading innovations in a short period of time. We were ready for an innovation focus after building the “common core” and improving collaboration across sub-groups / teams. We also implemented a dramatically improved individual employee development system.

Our business results improved substantially over the two years in nearly every area. The board member I reported to said “I can’t believe the change.” We conducted a “culture” survey at the beginning of this journey but it was one that primarily measured areas of climate. We moved from the lowest possible score in eight of twelve categories to the top 20th percentile in most areas as the climate was transformed.

I was happy about the improved results, but was the culture completely transformed in two years as the survey results would have led many to believe? No way. I knew that while these climate results had clearly skyrocketed the culture journey was just underway.

I ended up leaving the organization to accept a role in a part of the country that was a better fit for my family. An acquisition was finalized soon after I left and I was replaced by someone with a dramatically different leadership style. The operating model we built began to fall apart and results deteriorated very fast. The Board decided to sell the assets to its largest competitor and the story was over. Climate success was short-lived and overshadowed by the fragile state of our developing organizational culture.

The bottom line

It’s critical to understand both climate and culture, and the differences between the two.

  • Understand what you are measuring. Don’t be fooled by engagement or other climate measures and think you are measuring the behavioral norms and underlying assumptions (we have all experienced the power of these “unwritten rules”).
  • Don’t get stuck on the climate treadmill since your results will change as leaders, workload, policies, and other areas change. Climate is extremely important but don’t lose sight of culture. Schein gives us great advice about not being fooled by the illusion that when you change behavior you are changing the underlying culture.
  • If you are interested in sustainability, it’s critical to understand how culture is both helping and holding back your progress as you deal with problems, challenges, and goals.
  • Use a phased approach to constructive culture change so you build on shared learning and experience as you manage work on top performance priorities. This basic culture roadmap and free webinar may help  (website no longer available).
  • It’s your culture that endures as people come and go from your organization and, ideally, allows you to effectively deal with new problems, challenges, and goals.

Still having difficulties understanding the difference between culture and climate? Watch this video from CEO Robert Cooke from our 2nd Annual Ultimate Culture Conference.

Need some help getting started with culture and performance improvement? Learn about the 90-Day Culture and Performance Quick-Start Program

About the Author

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Tim Kuppler

Faculty Tim Kuppler is the founder of Culture University and former Director of Culture and Organization Development for Human Synergistics, a 40+ year pioneer in the workplace culture field where he led collaboration and partnering efforts with culture experts, consulting firms, industry organizations and other groups interested in making a meaningful difference in their organization, those they support, and, ultimately, society. Currently with the Compass culture division of the staffing powerhouse, Insight Global, Tim authored Build the Culture Advantage, Deliver Sustainable Performance with Clarity and Speed, which was endorsed as the "go-to" resource for building a performance culture. He previously led major culture transformations as a senior executive with case studies featured as part of the 2012 best-selling book – Leading Culture Change in Global Organizations. He was also President of Denison Consulting, a culture assessment and consulting firm and is an accomplished speaker and recognized as a Top 100 leadership conferences speaker on Tim's 20 years of culture and performance improvement experience includes the rare mix of executive leadership, coaching, and consulting knowledge necessary to help leaders quickly improve team effectiveness and results as they focus on their top performance priorities, challenges, and/or goals. He networks extensively in the workplace culture field in order to learn and apply the latest insights from many experts.