Culture vs. climate: Clarity over chaos

Monday, 26 September 2011 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

We go to Nuwara Eliya to enjoy its climate. What is the relevance of climate to organisations? How is climate different from culture? What is the connection between them? Today’s column will shed light in answering the above questions, with clarity over chaos.

Last week we looked at the term culture, with specific emphasis on national culture. We identified it as a system of shared meanings or in a much simple manner as collective mental programming. Let’s keep it in mind in looking at the term climate. It is important to distinguish between the two terms in order to avoid confusion.

Organisational culture

Organisational or corporate culture is the pattern of values, norms, beliefs, attitudes and assumptions that may not have been articulated but shape the ways in which people behave and things get done. In a more detailed manner, Schein (1985) defines culture as follows:

“A pattern of basic assumptions – invented, discovered, or developed by a given group as it learns to cope with its problems of external adaptation and internal integration — that have worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think and feel in relation to those problems.”

Denison (1996) states that the term culture refers to the deep structure of organisations, which is rooted in the values, beliefs and assumptions held by organisational members. This can be further explained by linking to several metaphors.

Organisational culture as an Iceberg: What is seen on the surface is based on a much deeper reality. The visible elements of culture are sustained by hidden values, beliefs, ideologies and assumptions.

Organisational culture as an onion: Like in an onion, organisational culture has many layers which constitute it. Such culture is unraveled by observing the various constituting elements such as rituals, ceremonies and symbolic routines.

Organisational culture as an umbrella: This refers to the overarching vision and values that unite the individuals and groups working under the umbrella.

Organisational culture as sticky glue: Organisational Culture can be viewed as intangible “social glue” that holds everything together. They include norms, values, rituals, myths, stories and daily routines which form part of a coherent reality.

As the above metaphors indicate, an organisational culture takes a long time to form, and as such it also takes a long time to change. Changing the direction of a sailing ship is not just turning the rudder. Rudder will rotate soon but the ship takes a long time to turn to the required direction. Storey (1995) linked such culture changes to HRM initiatives.

“Managing culture change and moving towards HRM can often appear to coincide and become one and the same project… corporate culture management has generated much excitement because it is perceived to offer a key to unlocking of consensus, flexibility and commitment.”

 Organisational climate

In contrast, climate refers to those aspects of the environment that are consciously perceived by organisational members. Perception is essentially an understanding based on the information obtained by senses such as eyes and ears. Hence, climate is something people see, hear and feel. That is why we see a difference when we enter a hospital, police station or a restaurant. In summary, climate is what we see and feel when we enter an organisation, whereas, culture is something much deeper as bedrock.

Hamel and Prahalad (1989) discuss a supportive organisational climate which includes creating a sense of urgency, developing a competitor focus at every level, providing employees with the skills they need to work effectively, gives the organisation time to digest one challenge before launching another, establishing milestones and reviewing mechanisms, etc. The researcher is of the view that even though the word climate is used, their real intention is to highlight organisational readiness in competing in a competitive environment.

Closer look at climate

As organisational researchers attempted to clarify, climate is a perception and is descriptive. Employees distinguish between the actual situation (culture) and the perception of it (climate). Reichers and Schneider (1990) define organisational climate as “the shared perception of the way things are done around here”.

Pareek (1997) describes it as “the perceived attributes of an organisation and its subsystems, as reflected in the way an organisation deals with its members, groups and issues.” As he points out, the emphasis is on perceived attributes and the working of subsystems. Subsystems are the components of a system called the organisation. It has inputs such as resources and outputs such as products and services. Thus, what the researcher attempts to emphasise is the need to understand an organisation in total as well as its components.

As Fink (1983) suggested, there are dimensions along which the organisational climate may vary. Table 1 contains the details.

The dimensions given in the table highlights a wide array of possibilities that determine the shape of climate. Let’s take the first one, conflicted vs. cooperative as an example. There can be a scene where internal politics play a role in creating regular conflicts. Obviously, then the employees perceive the climate as a conflicting one. The opposite of it is when team work is at its best, with people supporting one another. Then the perception is more of a cooperative climate.

Tendencies for a conducive climate

On a similar line, Rao (1990) prescribes the following tendencies for a conducive climate for people development. He uses the term Human Resource Development Climate to describe it.

  • A tendency at all levels and specially the top management to treat people as the most important resource.
  • A perception that developing competencies in the employee is the job of every manager/ supervisor.
  • Faith in the capability of people of changing and acquiring new competencies at any stage of life.
  • A tendency to open communication.
  • A tendency to encourage risk-taking.
  • A tendency to help employees recognise their strengths and weaknesses.
  • A general climate of trust.
  • A tendency for employees to be generally helpful to each other and collaborate.
  • Team spirit.
  • A tendency to discourage favouritism and biases.
  • Supportive personnel policies.
  • Development-oriented appraisals, training, rewards, job-rotation, career planning and potential appraisal.

The details that Fink et al (1983) presented and what Rao (1990) highlighted have many similarities. In fact, Pareek (1990) uses the term OCTAPACE to identify them in a nutshell. It is an acronym for openness, collaboration, trust, authenticity, proaction, autonomy, confrontation and experimentation. Let’s look into them in detail, in the Sri Lankan context.

A glance at OCTAPACE

Assessing the OCTAPACE in the context of Sri Lankan organisations is an interesting endeavour.

Hence, we should assess the potential usages for every element in the grid.

Openness: Employees feel free to express their ideas, when the climate has openness as a key feature. There is hardly any risk of employees being punished for telling the truth or for constructively being critical. It is in fact a mature state of affairs with sound communication practices across the organisation.

Sri Lankan organisations in general have a long way to go with this respect. What we mostly have resembles a part of a nursery rhyme, “Yes sir, yes sir, three bags full”. Ability to say no to seniors even when it is the reality is sadly lacking in some cases.

Confrontation: The point here is to confront the issues without hiding them under the carpet. It is a case of tackling bull by the horn. Highlighting the issues will pave way for solutions without stagnation.

We have a cultural disadvantage here. Confronting issues may be perceived as asking for troubles. Delaying and delaying as much as possible has become the practice in resolving issues. This escape route is not healthy for any progressive organisation. Perhaps, why people are not doing it enough could be deficits in communication, training and performance management.

Trust: How much the employees trust one another is the focus here, with specific reference to leader behaviour. Some seniors become micro-managers in checking each and every step of their subordinate movements. It indicates a low level of trust. In contrast, there can be a climate where people are encouraged to take own initiatives to achieve agreed targets.

We see both the above scenarios in Sri Lankan organisations. It again reflects the link between deep foundations of culture and what can be seen. A climate of trust has been the proven way forward.

Authenticity: It is the value underlying trust. It is the willingness of a person to acknowledge the feelings he/she has, and accept himself/herself as well as others who relate to him/her as persons. The call is to be genuine, without posing as what one is not. When employees demonstrate authenticity, relationship building becomes much easier.

Sri Lankan scenario is often a mixed one with this regard. A lot depends on the leadership style. There are model organisations where authenticity is fostered, with fullest support from the top.

Pro-activity: This is the call to be proactive rather than reactive. Employees should be action- oriented, in making things happen. It is a case of anticipating issues and exploiting opportunities appropriately.

Sri Lankan organisations can improve a lot in this respect. We are more reactive then pro-active. Waiting till the last moment to make key decisions has become a national habit. Prolonged union issues were seen in the past when proactive steps were not taken by the respective managers.

Autonomy: It is the willingness to use power without fear, and helping others to do the same. Employees should have some freedom to act independently within the boundaries imposed by their role. The essence is empowering the employees.

We have a long way to go in the local context. The consolation is that HRM is increasingly taken more seriously by the corporate leaders, and degree of empowerment is also on the rise.

Collaboration: Collaboration involves working together and using one another’s strength for a common cause. Individuals, instead of solving their problems by themselves, should share their concerns with one another and prepare strategies, work out plans of action, and implement them together. It essentially refers to teaming together.

We see a growing emphasis on team work and collaboration in Sri Lankan organisations. Specially in the private sector, the team concept is highly emphasised. However, in some cases the working as a team is just confined to wearing a T-shirt with team details (Team-X, Team – Y etc), which obviously limits collaboration.

Experimentation: Experimenting as a value emphasises the importance given to innovation. It involves risk taking and trying out new ways of dealing with problems in the organisation. Unless there is a tolerance of failures, experimentation will not foster. The encouragement should come from the organisation to encourage people to experiment within a reasonably accepted risk levels.

We can do more in this regard in Sri Lankan organisations. Whether we more creativity oriented or compliance oriented is the fundamental question. The challenge is to strike a balance between experimentation and expected results.

Way forward

We looked into the components of corporate culture and climate. The links seen can broaden our understanding on the deeply rooted organisational culture and its manifestations as climate. The challenge is to convert this clarity into committed action, in moving beyond chaos to achieve concrete results.

(Dr. Ajantha Dharmasiri is a learner, teacher, trainer, researcher, writer and a thinker in the areas of Human Resource Management and Organisational Behaviour.  He can be reached on [email protected])

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