There I was, sitting in the office of a senior executive who was struggling to come to terms with the reality that their organizational change effort, though having somewhat significant success initially, was not sustaining. People were quickly slipping back to old behaviors and engagement measures were sliding back to where they were when the change process started.
As I learned more about the “culture” change efforts that this organization had engaged in over the last year and a half, it became clear to me where it went sideways. This leader is not alone in succumbing to this common misconception about what culture is and isn’t and I felt that it was time to take a moment to clarify a few things for the rest of my readers who may be feeling similar frustrations.
The concept of organizational culture has become widely accepted as a critical component of performance in recent years. With this, I find that a great many of my discussions with leaders, often, teeter between several topics that fall within the realm of culture but are not one and the same. This reality can create some understandable confusion and frustration for people.
One common situation that I find myself running into are conversations with business leaders who are attempting to evolve the cultures of their organization but who, in reality, are focusing on organizational climate. Many business leaders tend to utilize the terms organizational culture and organizational climate interchangeably, and while they share many similarities, there are several key differences that delineate them from one other.
While both impact behavior in the workplace, helping leaders to understand the key similarities and differences between culture and climate will facilitate both engaging in dialogue and setting expectations with regard to what organizational outcomes they can hope to achieve. Additionally, both play integral roles in organizational functioning.
Let’s start with climate as it is generally viewed as the more narrow of the two concepts. Climate is comprised of a set of internal characteristics that influence behavior and that distinguishes one group from another. Climate is the more visible aspects, or manifestations, of the culture of an organization.
Climate is a measure of the perceptions of individuals in a group and it can change somewhat quickly. The transition of a key leader, a major internal or external event that impacts the organization at-large, or a change of business strategy can all have a significant impact on the climate of an organization.
Climate refers to the shared feeling of the environment and is a manifestation of how people perceive their ongoing relationship with their organization at a current point in time. It is also limited to the observable and conscious aspects of the experience that members have in their work environment.
The concept of organizational culture, however, goes much deeper to include what people believe, value, and the fundamental beliefs and assumptions that group members hold to be true about how work should be done. Culture is collectively shared amongst group members and relates to patterns of behavior that are deeply embedded in the fabric of the organization. These patterns develop as members of an organization, through trial and error, figure out what leads to success and what leads to failure.
Organizational culture is how people feel about the organization in which they are members, which is akin to climate and why people sometimes confuse the two. Culture goes further to include the underlying beliefs, values, and assumptions that members of the group hold to be true.
Deal and Kennedy suggest that organizational culture is, “the way we do things around here.” It is a system of shared orientations and accepted beliefs that hold a group together and give it a distinctive identity that set it apart from other organizations. Culture develops over time as members of an organization experience share learning about what works and what doesn’t. Over time, the members of the organization begin to understand how to succeed in that operating environment and begin to take for granted that those ways of operating are the “right” way to do things. This is all well and good so long as the operating context stays stable and what has always worked continues to work moving forward.
Unlike climate, culture is much less dependent on individual events that occur in the day-to-day. Rather, culture tends to drive peoples’ interpretation, thinking, and perspectives of the events that occur over longer periods of time.
In his book, Organizational Culture and Leadership, Edgar Schein suggests that “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.” Based on this assertion, a mid-level manager can have direct impact on the climate of his or her team by creating a work environment that performs at high levels despite what is going on around them in the organizational system, in effect, shielding the team from the ills of the system but, over time, the organizational culture, if not evolved to support those changed ways of working, will, most likely, exert powerful force on the team and they will eventually slide back into the collective ways of doing things.
If things are still a bit hazy for you, consider Guion’s analogy that the concept of climate is similar to the concept of wind chill- something that most people can relate to. Wind chill is simply peoples’ subjective perception of the combined effect of two objective concepts: wind speed and temperature.
Why is This Important?
So, you may be asking yourself, who cares? In the context of daily organizational function, the nuance between culture and climate may not seem like a big deal. Where the distinction becomes important for organizational leaders is when they are making decisions on where to focus their resources and what impact they can expect to see.
It is critical to tend to both culture and climate in an organizational system but with climate being the more visible and more readily changeable, it tends to be the area where most people focus. This is not wrong per se. Gaining ground where you can is certainly something. The risk of stopping at addressing climate-related topics is that those gains can be easily lost if the underlying cultural values, beliefs, and assumptions do not also evolve to support sustained behavior change through shared learning. The next time you find yourself getting frustrated at the lack of sustainability of your change efforts, ask yourself if you are focusing in the right place.
This article originally appeared on Forbes.com.