If “culture eats strategy for breakfast”, climate is what sets the ambiance–and the appetite around the table. Yet, while the attention of school leaders has long been drawn to the importance of school culture, much less emphasis has been placed on school climate as a variable and potential lever in their action. Here, a simple model is proposed to explain what organizational climate is, and how it relates to organizational change.
Culture and climate are certainly related, but also distinct in important ways. As a matter of fact, the concept of organizational climate predates that of organizational culture (Peterson & Fischer, 2004). Building metaphorically on Köppen’s classification, the model below represents school climate as a function of two variables: attitudes towards challenges (“precipitation”) and perception of efficacy (“temperature”), the combination of which dictates the kind of growth, or “vegetation”, one can expect in different types of school environment. It also argues that climate may be more actionable than culture as a lever for organizational change.
A school’s culture includes the various constructs that mediate and facilitate the interactions between its members. This includes artifacts, symbols and conventions, as well as collective assumptions (beliefs) and expectations (norms). A school’s climate, however, is the aggregate mood of its constituents. A first difference between the two is that, while its culture is unique to each social group, social climates fall under a limited number of categories. Next, being hard to pinpoint, culture can be hard to tackle or leverage. Climate, however, is much more palpable and easier to grasp. It is also more open to change. Just like culture, it consists in patterns. Yet, while culture is a way of thinking and behaving that is consistent over time, climate is a way of feeling that is consistent across situations. Culture is by definition resistant to change. This does not mean that it cannot be made to evolve, but creating stability and continuity is one of its very functions. Climate, on the other hand, has no substance of its own: it is a by-product of other factors that can (more) easily be acted upon.
Building metaphorically on Köppen’s classification, the diagram below highlights two series of factors dictating school climate--and how it can be influenced.
As an example, a school where colleagues feel rather unprepared, unsupported and disempowered to address challenges they do not fully comprehend or espouse has a “Steppe” climate where disengagement reigns. This makes it obvious that the leaders of a school must adapt to its climate for their initiatives to be successful, as climate dictates what can and should be taken action on, when, and how. More precisely, the first steps of a well-thought strategy include assessing the current climate and shaping it as needed. Indeed, school climate is a gauge of how much need and room there is for action. In simple terms, it indicates the level and valence of arousal in the school body, and thus its predisposition to respond to internal and external stimulation. For instance, high levels of negative stress call for pumping the breaks, decreasing challenges and building efficacy.
Yet, to improve their school climate, leaders should be careful not to confuse it with the “weather in the building” on a particular day. Actions meant to increase morale might have a temporary effect on emotions, but they will not improve the underlying mood unless they address its determinants. Offering a nice breakfast to kick-off a day of professional development will certainly make people happy; but it will only affect climate if it is part of a larger effort supporting their sense of recognition, support, and efficacy; and more generally what Antonovsky (1979) called their “sense of coherence”. In the end, climate is a barometer of trust–the trust that the members of an organization have that they can flourish in its environment. A gesture seen as disingenuine or simply insufficient might thus improve short-term satisfaction all while undermining climate and mood.
Conversely, appropriate “climate action” (if we may call it so) creates the necessary conditions for change initiatives to take root and blossom. Being more actionable and less stable than culture, climate affords opportunities to enact significant change faster and easier. Not that school leaders should consider culture immutable; but climate action will likely be of great help to introduce the fundamental changes needed to make it evolve.
The next questions to address, then, are: how can school leaders assess and address their school climate? What are the most relevant factors and indicators of perceived efficacy and attitude towards challenges? With clear answers in hand, school leaders will be better equipped to achieve their goal: implementing effective changes to ensure their organization adapts to external circumstances and continuously improves the delivery of its mission.
Peterson, M. F., & Fischer, R. (2004). Organizational culture and climate. Encyclopedia of applied psychology, 715–721.
Antonovsky, A. (1979). Health, stress and coping. Jossey-Bass Publishers.