Monday, September 28, 2009

Culture versus Climate

A recent LiaV post entitled “Culture eats strategy for breakfast” resulted in over one hundred community comments. It was a record. They went in many directions, but one particular comment by Gail Johnson Morris made me think. Gail asked us to think about the difference between culture and climate.

This concept really caught my attention because in my last position, we took the results of employee surveys seriously. The team I led worked hard taking into account the real time “environmental factors” that would have an impact on our scores that were often outside the control of the team. Complex topics like the economy, company employment status, stock price, news articles and customer feedback on products fell into this category. Gail’s insight now provided me the ability to clearly rationalize the difference.

When you work on improving your workplace culture, do you consider climate? Have you confused good climate as good culture in the past?


Tony Pinheiro Pires said...


Thanks for sharing. It is interesting. I have been working with Culture and Climate (employees) survey for the past 10 yeras. 7 with Petrobras.

Imagine an office, with about 100 employees (20 nationalities).

If HR dosn't understand culture, strategy, globalization and its effects on people... It has a 99,9 % chance to fail.

Ronald Akers said...

To me, the term climate can be viewed from many perspectives. When I view the term climate I think of the physical climate being temperature humidity and air quality for the sake of this discussion. From reading John's blog I recall an experience where I made 2 sales calls as part of my day. This took place in the summer where the temperature and humidity was extremely unbearable. Both companies constructed similar products for the same industry. The first customer invested heavily in the most state of the art climate controlled facility. During the sales call the first think I noticed was climate control in the 100,000 or greater square foot assembly floor space. It was not difficult to notice this when the temperature outside was pushing 90 F at 10:00 AM. Everyone in this facility had a great attitude and from what I saw, they were also easier to talk to during the sales process.

Customer number 2 we visited later that same extremely hot day and found this facility had no climate control in either the offices or manufacturing facility. I can easily say that the second customer was more difficult to work with because the underlying tone or attitude we noticed was that of a struggle to finish the day. Needless to say open dialogue with our customer contact was limited at best.

Abhaya Sangal said...


According to my view point culture and climate both have opposite starting points.

Culture emerges from inside to outside based on the shared values and beliefs of the people who constitute the organization body. It is at the root level. Every other aspect of the organization emerges from this root.

Climate on the other hand is a force - not under the control of organization - and always emerges from outside the organization.

Organization is like a tree which "needs" to "learn" as it grows, to face and survive under this external force of climate while sustaining culture.

Strategy is the wisdom emerging from the set of people called organization where everyone as a team to deal with climate without sacrificing the culture (values & beliefs).

Here is a learning and analogy from the nature proven by science. Take example of trees & animals who have survived on this earth. A tree variety may be taller in certain part of the world but not as taller in other part of the world based on climatic adjustments.

In case of Toyota (living example from industry) all strategies emerge from the values created more than 70 years back - people, society, surrounding and customer. Every aspect of business is created around these values. Current recession has been like a sudden climate change. Toyota will get affected at some parts of its business wherever there would have been loose ends but as a complete tree, I am sure, it will come out as a winner.

Hope I am able to reach across.

Abhaya Sangal

Michael Deneys said...

I've just finished reading a short book titled, "The 80 Minute MBA" by Richard Reeves & John Knell. It was focussed on sustainability and included a particularly interesting chapter on culture which neatly followed on from the "culture eats Strategy for Breakfast" discussion. I can recommend this book based on this chapter alone.

ISBN-10: 0755318900
ISBN-13: 978-0755318902

Anthony S. Grisanti said...

I agree with Gail's comments. I am faced daily with the culture vs climate vs strategy issue. I am at the bottom of the leadership ladder here but have been at the level of the people I work for so I know the macro they are looking at daily. I also think the problem, to add on to Gail's point, is that while culture is confused with climate, they also drive each other. A vicious cycle, poor or non existent culture establishes the climate, and when the climate is allowed to continue over time, it becomes/validates what has become known or accepted as the culture in an organization. We run into problems when we try to be the change we want to see and then fail to toe the line when it gets tough, when we bend, we lower the bar and the culture we want becomes the climate we are then trying to change with a strategy that is based on hope that we can get there. "Hope is NOT a method" as my Army mentor, COL Ray J. Terrill told me once. The short answer John is yes, I have confused the two in the past. I think the challenge in many organizations is to seperate the climate from the culture when they have become one.

Alex Kersha said...

Interesting topic, thanks for bringing it to light. In my experience an organization's culture is in part a result of the pervading climate. Stock Trading firms for instance have a similar culture (generally speaking) as do Software Development firms. Climate really is just the outward manifestation of business industry or category in a corporate setting.

If you begin to look at all organizations in a particular industry, their climates are fairly similar. Though this doesn't translate to the same cultures for each, it does set the stage. At the end of the day, the biggest factor in a corporate culture are the people themselves. Their attitudes and behaviors will shape the way a business looks and feels.

Chiefly for this reason when we hire we look for people who have an "adventurous" side. We look for individuals who get up early, go for a run or go hiking/climbing/camping on the weekends. We look for qualities that engender teamwork, independent thought and creative design. Our interviews are more "get to know you" rather than "can you do A, B or C". I've found over the years that by following this road, we rarely have to focus on culture or climate. Those things handle themselves.

Alex Kersha

Ray Seghers said...

Culture and Climate are a "chicken and egg" type issue. Which comes first? Culture certainly has an impact on Climate today, but over time an organization can change its Culture by changing its Climate.

Most employee surveys tend to focus more on Climate than on Culture because it is something that you can have a more immediate impact on. Ideally, an organization would focus on both and understand how they interact.

I have worked with organizations that really did not understand how their Culture impacted the way that they behaved on a day-to-day basis.

Anthony S. Grisanti said...

I use the simple technique of asking. I ask constantly of my team mmbers to tell me what they see from their vantage. They see the micro, they don't always realize I look at the macro, and what is important to them "right now" is important but not as catastrophic in the bigger picture. So I give and take, I teach and mentor about the views I have to take daily and why I make decisions I make, and I solicit their input, sometimes dumbing myself down so I get the raw truth. I find it helpful and refreshing to hear, somewhat like a child telling you things from their non-cynical makes me ask myself why I make it so hard sometimes. So i think that those of us in management/leadership positions probably need to dumb ourselves down in order to widen the circle of LiaV readers that are in critical positions or are just good leaders without management titles

Andy Cooper said...

Climate as part of the external business environment obviously has significant " touch points" into the internal business environment , however it is the vision , strength , decisiveness and leadership of the organisation that can drive the internal culture of the organisation , considering the external macro climate , but not DRIVEN by it .
In some Corporate organisations the "climate" could be seen as the Corp Leadership , somewhat remote from a particular region , however the climate setting could be directed by this "climate generator" , HOWEVER , it is the particular site's leadership to control and influence and drive the " summer periods " to create a culture of success , positivity , and energy despite the somewhat turbulent external climate environment.
Culture will prevail !

Prof David Clutterbuck said...

We are just engaged with a major culture change experiment with a large multinational corporation. The focus of the project is the work team -- we've found new ways to engage the whole team in collective learning that creates a localised coaching culture. The intention is that, when a critical mass of such teams is reached, the culture of the whole organisation will shift.
Prof David Clutterbuck

Terrie Rihs said...

I believe companies start with good intentions and incorporate a set of basic values that stress respect, honesty and trust (RHT). However, when the leader/s condones or acts in a manner that does not practice one or all of the company values (RHT) this is when the formation of what will eventually become the company culture (if it is not addressed immediately).

Many companies make the mistake of thinking that managing and leadership are one in the same.........SHAME on you! Two completely different skills.

When I visit a company, the first thing I do is look for the mission statement. I like when a company incorporates the culture in the mission statement, it is good insite for building a relationship with that firm.

Tom O'Connor said...

To sum up, culture consists of elements within the company's control (albeit with difficulty) while climate is composed of elements outside the company's control?

David Schlitter said...

You bring up a good point. However, I believe that part of a good strategy is to try to influence the climate (or "perceptions" of climate?). Any team/business can do this through multiple channels, but the easiest is to use the media to your advantage through news and trade articles. You should also consider internal PR as part of your program (especially at large companies). Unfortunately, most companies have moved away from PR in favor of advertising (perhaps an unfortunate by-product of MBA programs?). I'm not sure that PR is even taught at the MBA level (beyond a simplistic mention). PR is more believable than advertising and is regularly used by smaller companies to great effect against larger rivals (note Ben & Jerry's ice cream). I challenge the notion that either culture or climate have to be accepted at face value. On another note, I would agree that an expanding economy can hide problems with culture.

Frank said...

Great sbuject John , very interesting read on the Blog.

Robert Drukenmiller said...

This is a great question but in the end, climate may trump culture. For example, our business is dependant on home building. Contractors and builders normally drive full-sized trucks. Therefore, our sales staff believes that they should also drive trucks as is typical in the building/ construction culture. However, given the current economic conditions and the political climate trending towards sustainability, it would be illogical and uneconomical to continue to drive large gas guzzling vehicles. Thus, in this case, economic reality and the political climate trumps culture.

Michael Chevalier said...

I have no studies to show this but I would state that good company culture can see a firm or location through a bad climate. The example I am thinking of is having a really bad economic climate that will take your location through hell. How your employees travel though this will be heavily influenced by the culture you established prior to the bad times. The climate may be tough, very difficult, but if you have established a cultural value of trust, your team will follow you into hell and back out again.

Jordan Polson said...

I think Gail’s original thoughts are really important to consider and refer mostly to the individual leader’s impact on climate. I’ve been thinking about this for the past week in the context of my own role and it is really helping me flush out some things that I want to pass on to my new intermediate leaders.

Climate is much more volatile than culture and a change in the climate will most definitely create a degree of stress on the culture. If I was to announce to my staff that I was leaving my post, after having cultivated a healthy culture over the past 5 years, there would be instant fears surface in a few areas. As soon as a new leader comes in, there is an instant change in the climate and the leader has not even begun to understand or be part of the culture. The new person, or persona, is a complete unknown factor to the whole yet by their very presence, the climate changes instantly. Good hiring practices insure that the impact is minimal, but a new leader is most definitely part of the climate, not the culture. In time, they have impact on the culture, good or bad. Like Gail said, if you are a great leader, and you have some tenure, you can cultivate a culture that can sustain an immediate climate change and yet not disintegrate until adjustments have been made.

So this means that if a new leader has the opportunity, they should always make few strategic changes and work hard on understanding the culture. Just their very presence impacts their surroundings so an attempt to implement strategies without understanding the ebb and flow of the culture is dangerous.

Obviously in crisis, you act not sit, but if you have the grace from ownership, take your time.

Michael Ostrowski said...

hmmm, strategy vs culture ?? deeeeep thoughts ?? ok so here is my take, culture vs. strategy...ummm .. for employees and culture...the carrot and the stick...the stick is useless without the carrot..and for strategy.. it's at the top, no contest, nothing else...get your strategy right and culture and all the rest will follow ..signed MHO

Rob Ipenburg, van said...

One of the things we have observed is that culture is stimulated by good quality information (on climate for example). Take for example carbon footprinting: If this is done as an after the fact accounting exercise the impact on culture is fairly minimal and mainly resides at the compliance / CSR level.
When we were able to link it to individual activities and processes and articulate the results and contribution at this level, we could see the culture start to change because people get a better feel for their own contribution.

Matthew Blackledge said...

I agree with David's first point. Often the culture within the organisation 'filters' the external climate and defines how you respond to it. All organisations within a sector face the same climate; it is their culture that defines how they react to those factors. Where some see ruin, others see opportunity.

I suppose, therefore, that part of a solid culture is to bring in those climatic factors and decide how you will respond to them, rather than being dictated to by them.

Matt Dooley said...

I think culture is more fundamental than climate. Climate, like the weather is variable, while culture is really a set of values held by the employees. Culture is the core of how a company works. I have sat through the "Culture Change" program at my company etc, but nothing changed. If you want to change the culture you need to start at the top and drive it down over many years. Core values have to be established, communicated and stuck to. These core values transcend market condition, current business situation and climate. They are how we do business. Are we a service company, or a technology company or a low cost provider, and a company must choose which one of the three they are.

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