- To Change the Culture, Change the Climate
By Connie Williams
If your company looks similar to a competitor on paper, yet your business results are markedly different, the mostly likely source of that difference is the organization’s climate. Climate’s intangible nature leads many executives to believe it is unquantifiable or worse, fanciful. The truth is, climate is highly measurable in terms of impact on productivity, creativity, innovation and ultimately employee engagement, satisfaction and both individual and organizational success. Ultimately, climate is the outward expression of organizational culture.
What is the difference between climate and culture? Culture is a set of shared assumptions, often unwritten and hard to measure, that guide an organization’s conduct – values, norms, myths and symbols. Climate, in turn, refers to the moment-by-moment interactions, ultimately experienced and interpreted in an emotional context, as seen in its language and behaviors.
An organization might say innovation is critical to its growth, yet if it never takes real risks, employees experience a climate of skepticism and a culture of “safekeeping” – self-protecting from judgment or criticism, robbing the organization of a full contribution – no matter what the vision and mission statements say. In contrast, if leadership says pleasing the customer is “Job One”– and managers use behaviors and language that respect employee focus on customer satisfaction, when a situation requires creative problem-solving, those employees will use more of their time and talents delivering on intangibles that clearly impact the bottom line as well.
Climate is the sensory environment that reflects the behaviors, thinking and actions in an organization, experienced through an emotional lens among people.
Why define climate as sensory based? Climate evokes strong emotional resonance, experienced through and by the senses, even if we are not always consciously aware.
Using a broad definition of sensory, climate is experienced in language used, both words and tone. It is experienced kinesthetically in body language and non-verbals such as facial expression and gestures. Even taste and hearing are present as embodied metaphors, as in “that meeting left a bad taste in my mouth” or “something in that announcement doesn’t smell quite right”. Science confirms that these metaphors are often actually experienced literally, e.g. “he gave me the cold shoulder” happens factually as a drop in body temperature. These sensory experiences are interpreted and processed, resulting in feelings ranging from anxiety to appreciation, from frustration to satisfaction and trust.
Climate is easier to affect than culture and is shaped by the leaders of the organization. In fact, leaders should look at climate setting as one of their most important roles, especially to support business goals such as innovation success and growth performance. Because climate is experienced moment-to-moment, it is an ongoing, active responsibility from the top down, and at every level.
What is important for leaders to understand is that while climate can seem like an intangible, that there are definitive skills and qualities proven to positively impact climate that can be modeled and shared among individuals and teams, which in turn affects culture change. Not only can management announce its commitment to the responsibilities of climate, but it can set out a path to improve climate and allow a powerful culture to emerge to yield fresh ways of solving challenges and agile action. Rather than stumbling when faced with unanticipated issues, as might happen if organizational direction is narrow and prescribed, employees can enjoy a level of support and encouragement from their leaders that empowers them to take initiative and explore innovative approaches, delivering on critical opportunities for growth.
Climate is the secret ingredient to high performing cultures and growth through innovation. Its moment-by-moment nature makes it easier to effect, both positively and negatively, thus requiring conscious attention. So, if you want to change the culture, start by changing the climate.