Understanding the difference between Organisational Culture and Climate.

In working with organisations to improve their culture, we often notice confusion about what “culture” means. What many organisations call culture more accurately reflects that of climate: it’s the difference between the practices and routines (the habits) that comprise the how and why for an organisation as opposed to the mindset with which members of that organisation approach their work.

Both organisational culture and its climate play an important role in creating a healthy, efficient workplace. However, when organisations confuse them with each other, they risk either ignoring a fundamental piece of the culture puzzle, or else mistake the large, over-arching development of culture with the far more changeable climate. Just as culture needs to be owned by those at the top, so leaders create the climate that their teams have to work within.

So, what is the difference between organisational culture and leadership climate.

Organisational culture is comprised of the behaviors, beliefs, habits, and assumptions from which all members of a certain group operate. For instance, an organisation may value customer service, and the habits that they’ve developed to live such a value, replying promptly to emails, or asking “how can I help” as a first response. Another organisation may value initiative, encouraging behaviors around freedom of thought and discretionary effort among their workforce. These specific values and behaviors are linked, and comprise part of that organisation’s culture.

Leadership climate, by contrast, has far less to do with an organisation’s values and far more to do with an individual’s mindset. Like the weather, leadership climate can be changeable, but it can also have a significant impact on the mood and productivity of individuals and teams.

For instance, let’s say two employees are working together, and one approaches the job with a mindset of ‘victory and defeat’, in other words, I have to feel as though I have won in order to feel better about myself and my capabilities. Even though employees are supposed to collaborate, a focus on ‘victory’ over another creates a cold and unpleasant climate, and one where ‘threat’ may be perceived, and thus the need to protect and defend oneself.

However, if a leader has a mindset which is about success and the best outcome for all, because they believe in themselves and others, they are much more likely to be able to make a choice about how to respond wisely, because they see themselves and others as fundamentally ‘OK’. Climate is influenced strongly by the mindsets of the employees and leaders involved. People who are encouraged to be choiceful about how their behaviors can influence the ‘climate’ in which work happens.

Organizational climate is only one piece of the culture puzzle—but it’s an important one.

Many organizations can become distracted by climate, thinking that they need only lift the mood of the workplace to change its culture. Is it cold and damp, or is it sunny and warm? We all want a warm and sunny climate, however a strong organizational culture is about more than just making the workplace environment feel nicer. It’s about having the clarity and alignment the organization needs to succeed.

That said, climate does have an important effect on your workplace environment. It’s about the mindset that enables the structure and alignment of your organisation to be efficient: nobody has the energy to walk very far when it’s wet. This environment can make it more difficult to have the honest conversations which are so critical to an organisation’s effectiveness.

Most people feel better when the sun is shining, they walk with a smile and are more open to notice what is around them. When it is wet and cold most of us place our eyes to the floor and get to where we need to be without noticing much around us. This metaphor can be reflected by the leaders who are trying to drive organisational culture. Do we have leaders who are emotionally intelligent, creating a warm open climate where people can grow through curiosity and robust debate? Where decisions and debate can be efficient because there is no threat and so no-one needs to defend themselves and position for ‘victory’? When leaders are creating an emotionally intelligent climate we can achieve win/win for everyone. If individuals approach their work with a mindset of openness and choice, they will have the energy to create a more efficient, high-performing culture.

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two business people holding disconnected puzzle pieces that say culture and engagementcoworkers standing next to each other looking at fils, phones, and tablets