Organizational climate is the most palpable, immediate experience of organizational culture but is much more malleable than culture. Organizational climate consists of the behaviors experienced and observed in an organization, its norms and other conventions; and can also include tone, energy level, pacing and other characteristics. Improving organizational climate is easier than commonly assumed, but it is an art, not a science.
Usually climate improvement efforts consist of reducing the incidence of unwanted behavior (e.g. bullying, blaming, or workplace harassment) and/or increasing the frequency of desired behavior (e.g. bystander intervention with negative behavior, creating a more collaborative and cross functional work environment, or building a greater level of teamwork). Unfortunately, many efforts to improve organizational climate are unsuccessful because the teams leading them fail to realize fatal errors until it is too late. Here are several steps necessary for avoiding common pitfalls and optimizing support for your change effort:
Invest in planning time. It’s very important to carefully think through all the steps involved beforehand to make sure that none of them can unravel and inadvertently sabotage the larger change effort. In large organizations, the planning stage for a project that improves organizational climate can take one to three years, or even more. Usually the latter part of this planning time is also devoted getting buy-in from leadership, managers, employees and other key stakeholders.
Enlist the help of a group or individual to serve as an ongoing external advisor to the team leading your organizational climate change effort. Having an independent entity providing an external perspective on your efforts to improve organizational climate is critical for several reasons. Most importantly, an external advisor familiar with similar organizational climate improvement efforts can help you avoid common stumbling blocks. In addition, an external advisor can say things to top leadership that no one within the organization can. The failures of such change efforts are usually not related to the goal of improving organizational climate, but rather to shortcomings in how the change process is conducted — how information about the issue of concern is gathered, disseminated, and acted on. Put another way, the impulse of most organizations is to approach the problem of improving organizational climate in the same way that they conduct their usual business — in a top-down manner. However, improving organizational climate is not like business as usual. It’s much more like running a continuing internal campaign that markets the approach and uses assessment results to build consensus on what change efforts are needed and how they need to proceed.
Measure what you seek to change (before trying to change it). Many efforts at improving organizational climate falter early on due to measurement failures. In some cases, leaders may think that the behaviors needing changing are so obvious that they never bother to verify their assumptions with data regarding the extent and frequency of the behaviors of concern before intervening. More often, efforts to improve climate collapse prematurely because the initial measurement of ongoing behavior (a climate survey or climate assessment) is developed and administered without the assistance of a competent survey professional. In these instances the result is inadequate or unusable data that undermines the credibility of the change effort and that also discourages employees from participating in future climate surveys.
Measure more than organizational climate. There are often secondary impacts that are critical to measure but not emphasize when improving organizational climate: financial performance, productivity measures, legal and settlement costs, insurance costs, grievances, customer satisfaction, employee health factors, employee retention/turnover, ability to recruit new talent, employee satisfaction and more. These types of data are typically lagging indicators in that improvements in these metrics often take longer to appear than improvements in behavior revealed in climate surveys. At some point leadership will become concerned about the cost of continuing the change effort, and it is always helpful to be able to have evidence that an improved organizational climate has reduced costs, increased income or produced other favorable outcomes.
Develop an overall plan that maps out when subsequent climate surveys will occur and when action steps will be developed from the resulting survey data. Efforts to improve organizational climate based on recurring climate assessments follow a repeating cycle of: (1) assessment; (2) dissemination of assessment results; (3) development and implementation of action plans; (4) reassessment. Will subsequent climate surveys occur once a year, every two years or at another interval? Here is an example of a typical two-year assessment cycle. Recurring climate surveys are critical because they will be the only valid basis for assessing whether efforts to improve organizational climate are moving in the right direction or not. In my experience, these efforts usually need to recur every two years in most large organizations and every year in smaller ones. The objective is to let enough time to pass before a resurvey so that there will be evidence that the effort is gaining traction. At the same time, resurveys also need to be frequent enough to keep the change effort at top of mind for all participants and create accountability for managers and employees responsible for completing critical tasks related to the change effort.
Before the first survey, assure that all participants know who will see the survey results, who will develop action plans that respond to them, and the time frame for doing so. Transparency is essential to maintain the credibility and forward momentum of efforts to improve organizational climate. Failure to widely share climate survey data in an organization and the proposals for responding to them is sure way to diminish manager and employee buy-in and endanger the viability of an effort to improve organizational climate.
Ensure that the leadership team fully supports the effort to improve organizational climate while also leadership-proofing the change effort. Leadership team members must be fully committed to supporting the change effort in both word and deed, including making sure that their personal behavior is consistent with that promoted by the climate improvement effort. Depending on the size of an organization, efforts to improve organizational climate will take a minimum of one to six years to produce evidence of positive results. During this time period, changes in leadership are likely. Unfortunately, new leaders usually see no benefit to continuing a predecessor’s initiative to improve organizational climate (or any other of the predecessor’s initiatives). There are several ways to counter this predictable behavior of new leaders by leadership-proofing the change effort. Make sure that the climate improvement effort has multi-year funding. Structure the project so that it is co-sponsored by external partners like a parent company, a board, foundations, community groups, unions, industry associations and so on. Ensure that the job description for new leaders includes continuing the climate improvement effort. In qualifications statements and interview questions present the change effort as a given and ask how job applicants how will use their skills and experience to assure its success.
And finally, even when resurveys indicate that the desired improvement in organizational climate has been achieved, keep surveying at regular intervals. Over time, the more positive behaviors created by the change effort can decay and periodic resurveys will indicate when the organizational climate is starting to move back in a negative direction or if other negative behaviors are emerging. Think of it as monitoring the health of your organization’s climate.