Sunday, 22 January 2012

Main differences between organisational culture and organisational climate

Origin of organisational culture
Whilst business strategy is concerned with identifying in advance what and by which means an organisation wants to achieve in the long term, organisational culture is concerned with the process throughout which people working in the same environment develop the set of assumptions, shared values, beliefs and norms, i.e. the right and appropriate behaviour, necessary to achieve those objectives.

External influences notwithstanding, culture basically and essentially develops from within an organisation. It can be said that organisational culture becomes “norm” in that the assumptions and the shared values and beliefs at its basis are broadly accepted and recognised by the group of people concerned.

The fact that all, or the great majority, of the people concerned behave respecting those norms contributes, in turn, to further reinforcing its general acceptance and validity.

Although the process throughout which culture unfolds within an organisation involves and sees the active participation of all of the employees working within it, insofar as it can be said that each individual actually contributes to its developmental process, not all of the individuals working within the same organisation generate the same perception and feeling about the final outcome produced by that process.

Origin of organisational climate
The concept of organisational climate is just concerned with the perception and feeling which each individual matures of the organisational environment as it is actually generated by the culture developmental process.

Although the first reference to organisational climate dates back to a study carried out, in 1939, by Lewin, Lippitt and White, a first more comprehensive definition of organisational climate was later provided by Argyris (1958) in a study aiming to investigate group dynamics in a bank.

The concept was, then, further developed by McGregor (1960) who more specifically referred to the idea of “managerial climate”. Stressing the importance of the role played by the relationship between managers and their reports over organisational climate, McGregor actually represents the first Author to directly associating and linking organisational climate to organisations’ management and leadership styles.

There are today a number of definitions of organisational climate, however it can basically be said that, as suggested by Ivanchevitch et al (2008), organisational climate is very much concerned with the influence exerted on individuals’ behaviour by some elements, characteristics and/or qualities of the work environment. The effects of organisational climate on staff behaviour are determined by the way each individual perceives, directly or indirectly, those qualities and characteristics of the internal environment.

Taking as axiomatic, then, that organisational climate is concerned with individual’s perceptions and feeling, it could be worth trying to find out which is the impact produced by these perceptions and the extent of their practical implications.

Burton et al (1999) claim that climate can be considered as a “relatively enduring quality of the organisation which is experienced by its members”. Similarly, Field and Abelson (1982), Dailey (1988) and French et al (1985) define organisational climate as a (relatively) persistent and enduring quality. In general, it can be said that since organisational climate depends on organisational culture, individuals should not be likely to frequently change their interpretation of the work environment, unless some relevant changes do not occur within the organisation’s culture.

Indeed, climate is associated with perceptions and feelings which sometimes could also be determined and caused by misunderstanding, bias and/or misjudgement of some events occurred to them. Employees join organisations, but leave their managers (MacLeod and Clarke, 2009); sometimes a “simple” change of Line Managers can effectively and rather suddenly contribute to change individuals’ perceptions of the overall organisations environment and of its practices and policies. So that, although in general climate can, by and large, be considered as a rather enduring and persistent quality, it is also important to consider that individuals’ perceptions can, at times, be influenced and distorted by the behaviour of single individuals working within the organisation who, to some extent, prevent other individuals to really understand and appreciate organisational climate as it really stands. As stressed by Schneider (2008), in fact, organisational climate is concerned with employees’ perceptions about formal and informal practices, procedures and policies executed within an organisation. Someone could argue that it is up to employers to do what it takes in order to avoid that such situations actually occur, which is true but which actually represents another and different aspect of the subject. Such episodes would clearly result to be irrelevant and insignificant at organisational-culture level were all of the employees are concerned and a few “exceptions” (provided they are a few) will not affect and impact an organisation’s culture. But climate is not concerned with staff and workforce considered as a whole, but rather with each individual and his personal feeling, appreciation, understanding and perceptions.

Communications specialists always say that when the recipient of a communication message has not understood the real content of the communication, the sender should ask himself if the message was actually clear (and not immediately think that the recipient did not understand the message). To some extent it could be said that organisational climate is what individuals understand of the culture message. So that, if sometimes the problem can actually lie in the way culture is understood, in many other cases the problem can lie in the way the message has been communicated. Whatever the case, employers should try to do their utmost to ascertain that everybody, especially their managers, effectively and consistently participate to the process and that everybody is singing from the same hymn sheet.
Other two points which seem to gather a wide consent about organisational climate relate to the circumstance that a) climate can be measured and b) that it has a clear and relevant impact on the way people perform.

Concepts confusion
Although the concepts of organisational culture and organisational climate are quite different one another, for a long period of time a certain degree of confusion has been dominating.

In a bid to avoid any possible kind of mix-up, Denison (1996) suggested to refer to organisational culture as to the deep structure of an organisation, which is based on the assumptions, beliefs and values held by its staff, whereas to refer to organisational climate as to those elements of the internal environment as they are consciously perceived by each individual.

A more straightforward approach to organisational climate is to consider it as the way individuals perceive, see and feel about organisational climate (Armstrong, 2009). Although we are looking at two different concepts and ideas, the link between culture and climate is evident in that climate is essentially identifiable with individuals’ perceptions about organisational culture’s quality and characteristics (French et al, 1985). French et al (1985) suggest that culture represents the actual situation, whereas climate represents individuals’ perceptions, although it is quite difficult to identify the traits and features of the actual situation especially when individuals’ perceptions virtually represent it differently from what it is supposed to be.

It could basically be said that organisational culture is concerned with the macro vision of an organisation life-style, meant as “the way we do things around here”, whereas organisational climate is very much concerned with the micro image each individual has formed of organisational culture and the way each single member of staff actually considers and appreciates organisational culture. As such organisational climate becomes particularly important for employers, in that it is just on the basis of, and according to, the feeling and perceptions which individuals generate that they will behave and develop their attitudes towards their work and their working environment.

As for the aspect related to the presence within an organisation of different cultures, Saffold (1988) concedes that although multiple subcultures coexist within an organisation as a matter of course, strong culture investigations seem to support the importance of single, unitary cultures. As suggested by Armstrong (2009), nonetheless, it clearly makes sense that, even though maintaining common values, beliefs and norms, within the same organisation, the “outward-looking” culture developed within a marketing division can be sensibly different from that developed within an “internally-focused” manufacturing department of the same organisation.

In the case of climate the phenomenon is clearly even more widespread and it is obviously much more likely, or rather certain, that individuals will develop different ideas of organisational climate even within the same function, department or division.

It must be said that some Authors have stressed further the meaning associated with individuals perceptions of the work environment referring to a two-level scale based on a clear distinction between “psychological climate” and “organisational climate”. More in particular, psychological climate would be identified with individual-level perception, whilst organisational climate would be considered with reference to the broader unit or organisational level perception. The latter case occurs when people within the same unit share the same perception and feeling about the work environment (Joyce and Slocum, 2004; Jones and James 2004).

Good or bad culture and climate
As for strategy it cannot be said that an organisation’s culture is better than another (Armstrong, 2009), so that the comparison between different cultures of different businesses would be a pointless exercise. Additionally what can be considered good for an organisation cannot be necessarily considered as good for another. Moreover, as suggested by Alvesson (2001) “Some things that may be seen as good may be less positive from another angle”.

Broadly speaking, it can be said that usually good, valuable or strong cultures are those cultures which are seen as effective means to an end, not considering and assessing if good is equal to usefulness and the likely multidimensional implication goodness might have (Alvesson, 2001).

Although the subject is much less mundane than it might apparently seem, it can in general be said that as long as an organisation’s culture is inspired and based on, and practically fostering and endorsing, fairness, consistency and integrity, an organisation’s culture can definitely be considered adequate. Without a doubt this is the case in which the best fit approach, rather than the best practice one, applies.

Rather than referring to organisational culture in terms of how good or bad it is, it could possibly be much more appropriate, instead, referring to how effective or ineffective organisational culture reveals to be on actually helping and supporting an organisation to achieve its intended aim and objectives. As suggested by Armstrong (2009), in fact, organisational culture has to be “relevant to the needs and circumstances” of an organisation and its ultimate scope has to be the one of favouring good levels of performance rather than hampering efficiency.
The quality of an organisation’s climate is clearly strictly dependent on the level of fairness, consistency and integrity an organisational culture will be able to inspire and foster in each individual concerned. Differently from culture, in fact, individual perceptions will not be immediately and directly influenced by the level of performance a culture will be able to foster within the organisation, but rather by some other aspects as fairness, equity, consistency and integrity.

Organisational climate, seen from the individual perspective, is subject, then, to be both negatively and positively perceived.

Influences on behaviour
The impact of culture and climate on individuals’ behaviour can be considered unquestionable. Clearly, both culture and climate have a considerable importance on determining the way in which individuals will behave and perform within an organisation.

Nonetheless, since it can be said that the effects of organisational climate are more directly impacting on each individual than culture does and since climate is exclusively and differently perceived by each employee, in that it is associated with his/her subjective perceptions, it can be concluded that organisational climate definitely has a more direct and powerful influence on individual behaviour than organisational climate has.

Provided it could be assessed, in those occasions in which climate is perceived by individuals in a way which is consistent and coherent with organisational culture (or in the terms used by French et al, 1985, when individuals’ perception coincide with the actual situation) it will be possible saying that the behavioural effects produced by organisational culture will be the same as those generated by organisational climate.

Since organisational climate is directly affected by, and to some extent dependent on, organisational culture, organisations should pay extra care to climate measurements feedback and strive to constantly find and come up with new ways to change or support organisational culture accordingly.

Influence on the psychological contract
Since the content of the psychological contract, creeping up changes notwithstanding, is mainly associated with fairness, involvement, influence capability and opportunities for growth and development, it is very likely that both organisational culture and, even more, organisational climate have a strong impact on each individual unwritten psychological contract.

Clearly individuals’ perceptions and feeling of the work environment, practices, policies and procedures put in place by their employers will be very much influenced by each individual expectations.

Since the feeling of the breaching of the psychological contract by initiative of the employer produces relevant effects on employees’ motivation and attitude towards their work and organisation, employers should pay extra care on their organisations culture developmental process and “execution”. The risk being that employees will become the more and more distant from their organisations both because they believe that their employer has breached their individual psychological contract and because of the overall business culture which they might consider being not supportive of their aspirations and expectations.

Longo, R., (2012), Main differences between organisational culture and organisational climate, HR Professionals, Milan, [online].