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Culture vs Climate in the Organization

Greg Tricklebank

Jim Taggart recently posted an interesting and useful blog on the Difference between Corporate Culture and Climate - a subject that I have been working on for some time.  As a change management consultant with a social science background, I have watched (and participated) with interest as the idea of ‘culture change’ has taken hold in the Public Service and elsewhere.  Based on my experience, I entirely agree with Jim’s assessment that most of the time, “… when we talk about corporate culture we’re actually referring to the climate of the organization”.

The difference between culture and climate

I would caution readers against a tendency to view corporate climate as merely a superficial version of the culture.  In fact, among other things, the two concepts differ with respect to substance and evidence.  Culture refers to ideologies, values and norms as reflected in stories and symbols.  We would look for clues to the culture, for example, in accounts of the organizations founding.  Climate, on the other hand, refers to the psychological environment as reflected in attitudes and perceptions.  We would look for clues to the climate, for example, by gauging the level of trust between peers or between managers and front-line employees.

But what is the actual difference between culture and climate?

I find it very difficult to articulate this difference in non-theoretical terms, but a couple of analogies might convey my understanding of the difference and the relationship between culture and climate.

  1. Hypothetically, if time were to stop, the organizational climate would cease to exist without trace. On the other hand, the culture would persist, in a manner of speaking, in physical artifacts - the meaning of which could be deciphered by a hypothetical alien archeologist.  The analogy here is with a ‘stock’ and ‘flow’ model from the field of economics, where culture would be a stock and climate would be a flow.  
  2. A second, more intuitive analogy might be taken from the field of meteorology where:

This is actually a fairly good analogy, if you can get your head around the unfortunate sharing of the term ‘climate’.

(Having written this, we should embark on a campaign to expunge the use of the term organizational ‘climate’ in favour of something else.  This would free up this otherwise perfect analogy (model) for use in analyzing the relationships involved.  How about organizational …?)

There is a practical point here. 

I believe that change management interventions would be used more effectively if the distinction between culture and climate were better understood.   Open Space Technology Mexico-pyramid-136x150for example, which Jim refers to in his blog, may be especially effective in changing the organizational ‘climate’ as I understand it.  However, it is still debatable as to whether and to what extent such techniques can or should be used to change the culture.

This is an important issue for managers, change management practitioners, and leaders at all organizational levels.   Jim’s blog has prompted me to resurrect my White Paper on Organizational Culture vs Climate which should be of interest to anyone who wants a deeper understanding of the issue from a social-theoretical perspective.  

I’m very interested in your thoughts on this distinction between culture and climate.  Is this information new to you?  Is it relevant to you?  Do you have any ideas for a new term to replace Organizational Climate?  Add your thoughts in the comments section below.


I’m not responding on the distinction between culture and climate, so much as thinking about how culture is viewed as a key factor in the success of change initiatives.

I am beginning to ask myself whether or not the whole focus on culture (and climate) has become a way for us to bundle up things which should be unbundled. At the Virginia Mason conference I blogged about here at Delta, they quoted the old saw: “Culture eats strategy for lunch”. But everything we learned at that conference, and in the whole lean design movement(pdf), suggests that this is an unhelpful simplification. Based on my experience in private business where I was involved in major change initiatives - some which worked and some of which didn’t - if a concerted, change management project is actually instituted from the top - using a system such as John Kotter’s 8 steps as discussed in his book Leading Change, culture yields to strong systemic forces and changes. Culture is created and reinforced not only the founding factors, but by a wide range of systemic forces that institutionalize it. It is sustained and rigidified by things such as how people are rewarded and promoted, honoured, shamed and what threatens them in the workplace. IMO, it’s critical to successful change initiatives to talk about these specific drivers and to understand which ones support the aspects of culture that are impeding change. Understanding a culture without understanding these systemic reinforcers is not enough.

By Ellen Godfrey on 2010/07/29

Hello Mr. Tricklebank,

I just finished reading your interesting article, I reflected on my own modest consulting experiences, and tried to see if there are points in your article that I could have used in a number of assignments I did.

I just spent 4 years in the Persian Gulf working for an oil company on developing continuous improvement systems, and did some outside consulting to semi governmental organizations interested in pursuing ISO systems, and I must tell you that your article could have helped tremendously as the line between climate and culture in organizations in that part of the world is not only grey but also very thick. For me the biggest obstacle was bureaucracy in its ugliest form. Every GM or manager is a king, behaves like one, and worse, gets treated like one. As a Canadian with a straight forward no B.S. approach, I found myself making more enemies than friends, and it took me a while to figure out why. It turns out that I was dealing with those managers as managers, not kings. Success was relatively easy to achieve once I learned how to treat those managers as kings.

The moral of the story is that you will never achieve any substantial gains on the change management front without a true understanding of the culture, then the climate would be easier to figure out, not the other way around.

I would love to hear your feed back on this.

By Sam on 2011/04/13

Thank you for taking the time to comment on my article.  The experience that you relate is an excellent example of where one has to work with and even use the culture to achieve your client’s change objectives.  In the interests of clarifying the distinction between culture and climate in practice, I would be interested in knowing what aspects of climate you needed to deal with or change, once you figured out how to treat the managers as kings.

By Greg Tricklebank on 2011/04/13

As to my experience with dealing with the kings, I must add that it is necessary that we understand the forces at play in any culture before we attempt to make any changes or embark on work in general. People in that part of the world and more specifically, where I was working are very sensitive to conflict and personal image. Some of the directors I spoke with at length had expressed no desire to make any changes as it will be an admittance of guilt, and thus it would reflect on his image. Being a tiny country, most of the locals are related to each other and are careful of what they say and do as to will be reflected on the entire clan, especially when dealing with foreigners from other parts of the world. One director admitted to having many issues to resolve, yet he would prefer that his successor deals with them, and he gets to walk into retirement with a clean, mistake free, thirty year career, Imagine that.

So, the best way I figured to do this, and in the interest of focusing my effort and time to produce results in a huge corporation, I chose to deal with those who are eager to and interested in making a difference. However, those who did not, I chose to ignore them, and watch them come back later asking for help. This is how I did it:

1.  Despite not fully convinced that this is the best way to do it, I created management system procedures outlining and mandating the CI requirements as part of the ISO system. So, you do not want to play now, you will come asking to play later. This way it is no longer this annoying Canadian asking for this, it is the system

2.  Created a reporting system that was added into the management review process at the board of directors level. Those who were active in CI were acknowledge, and those who did not, were questioned by the Minister who is the CEO. Being questioned by the minister is always understood to be the ultimate smack to the back of the head. Did it work? Yes it did, as my email and fax was full of requests for meetings to clarify the CI process and how to participate. I must admit, that with some departments this did not work, and they still continued to drag their feet on this for a long time.

3.  The culture there is such that if you want to be successful, you must be good at the public relations game. I am an engineer with a career in manufacturing, so I never needed to worry about learning PR skills. My hard nosed Texan boss when I first arrived there suggested that I watch and learn how the locals went around doing their business. Armed with this, I convinced one director to allocate a small amount of money in his annual operating budget for a gala to recognize CI achievements in his area, he went further as to invite a local paper photographer to take pictures of the gala with a small write up. You can guess what happened next. The word spread around, and more people were interested in advertising their CI activities, and of course, take credit for being the master mind behind it. For me it was a simple deal, you take credit as long as you do it.

4.  Third world countries love, yes love bureaucracy. So I used it, as much as I hate it, to make changes, and at times force changes.

In short, I did the best I could to change as many minds as possible, but the fact remains that we as humans will not change unless we are forced to, and businesses are the same way. My vision for the CI process was at the infancy stages when oil prices were $150 pb, and production cost was $4 pb.  Under business conditions like those, it is next to impossible to convince a company in a third world country to adopt a new approach and target waste through a CI program. I am not aware of a company in the world that would start a change program under similar conditions.

By Sam on 2011/04/13

I would like to comment very briefly on Ellen’s point (by Ellen Godfrey on 2010 07 29) that a Culture is created and reinforced not only by the founding factors, but by a wide range of systemic forces that institutionalize it. It is sustained and rigidified by things such as how people are rewarded and promoted, honoured, shamed and what threatens them in the workplace. It’s critical to successful change initiatives to talk about these specific drivers and to understand which ones support the aspects of culture that are impeding change. Understanding a culture without understanding these systemic reinforcers is not enough.

I think I agree with the overall intent of the comment, to emphasize that systemic forces are in play which influence both the course of cultural development and the consequences of specific culturally proscribed actions.  However, I believe that the systemic forces to which Ellen refers - how people are rewarded and promoted, honoured, shamed and what threatens them in the workplace - are the aspects of culture that are impeding change, the reasons for which may be out of reach for discussion.

I am reminded of the story of the monkeys and the banana, an anecdote about how organizational culture is formed.  In Harlow’s experiment, five monkeys were put into a regular monkeys cage, with a banana hanging high on a rope from the roof of the cage (outside the reach of the monkeys). The researcher then put a step ladder enabling the monkeys to reach the banana. However, whenever one of the monkeys attempted to climb and reach for the banana, ALL monkeys were sprayed with freezing ice cold water. After few attempts, they all learned the association between reaching for the banana and the group collective punishment of being sprayed with freezing ice cold water. If they want to stay warm and dry, they better not reach for the step ladder. From now on, none of the five monkeys tried to reach for the banana anymore. There was no need for the water treatment from that point on.

At this stage the researcher replaced one of the five monkeys with a new monkey. The new monkey, not aware of the icy water treatment, tried to reach for the banana. Within fraction of a second the other four monkeys pounced on him and beat the hell out of him again and again, till he stopped and did not try anymore. Note, that icy water treatment was not used anymore. The same process was repeated, one of the four monkeys who experienced the original icy water treatment was replaced by a new one, and again all the monkeys beat the new monkey to submission. Finally, the cage was populated by five monkeys of whom none have experienced the icy water treatment. The experimenter then introduced a new monkey to the cage. When this monkey tried to reach for the banana, all five monkeys jumped on him and beat the hell out of him. None of these monkeys knew about the collective punishment of icy water, none knew why they are not allowed to get the banana, but somewhere along the way they learnt that reaching for the banana is not allowed. They become the guardians of this rule without knowing its purpose.

By Greg Tricklebank on 2011/04/13

Your experience, Sam, in the Persian Gulf is wonderfully illustrative of the graduated scale of change management interventions, as elaborated in the paper on ‘Culture vs Climate’.  See my comments in the table below.

Intervention Mode:  Simple Communication
Circumstances:  Effective where the required change does not impact the fundamental interests (real or perceived) of the parties concerned.
Comment on Sam’s Experience in ‘Huge Corporation’:  As I understand it, you were engaged to implement a continuous improvement system in a situation where it would not be sufficient to merely inform members of the client organization regarding what they needed to do.

Intervention Mode:  Education
Circumstances:  Effective by bringing perceived interests into alignmnet with the real interests by altering perceptions.
Comment on Experience:  Always difficult, especially in a cross-cultural situation, as it may smack of paternalism, implying that the outsider is a better judge of the locals’ interests than are the locals themselves. Although you don’t address this in your summary, I imagine you needed to treat a fine line in this regard.

Intervention Mode: Alter the matrix of interests (rewards and punishments)
Circumstances:  Appropriate where the required change is out of alignment with the real interests of the participants and works by altering the balance of rewards and punishments in favour of the change.
Comment on Experience:  You altered the balance of rewards and punishments by making minor structural adjustments: a) to the reporting system, which guaranteed a social punishment for poor performance in continuous improvement; and, b) to the budget allocation, providing for valued public recognition of achievements in continuous improvement.

Intervention Mode:  Organizational climate change
Circumstances:  Appropriate to overcome resistance to change arising from issues of trust, leadership style, uncertainty of purpose, lack of teamwork and/or poor attitude toward personal risk taking.
Comment on Experience:  You describe an organizational climate which is sensitive to conflict and in which mistakes are unacceptable.  By choosing to deal with those who are eager to, and interested in, making a difference, you actually employed a ‘change agent’ intervention strategy.  As you suggest, the others would see the results and come back later asking for help.

Intervention Mode:  Culture change
Circumstances:  The challenge is to leverage the energy while minimizing the constraints inherent where culture is out of alignment with the purposes of the organization.
Comment on Experience:  In this case, you are dealing with a ‘traditional’ culture, against which newer, bureaucratic norms actually represent progress.  The requisite culture change has already occurred in you client organization - they love bureauscracy. You were able to use this to help them in achieving their goals.

Intervention Mode:  Individual coaching and remediation
Circumstances:  This is a last resort in dealing with recalcitrant individuals.
Comment on Experience:  You don’t address this, but I imagine that whatever steps were takin in this regard, they were entirely dictated by the norms of the prevailing culture - be it that of a bureaucratic type, a more ‘traditional’ type, or a hybrid of both.

Of course, I am speculating on the basis of a very brief description of your experience.  Does this resonate, or is there a better model that fits?  Would anyone else like to share a similar change management experience?

By Greg Tricklebank on 2011/04/18

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Posted by Greg Tricklebank
Posted on July 20, 2010

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Categories: change management, organizational development