ORGANIZATIONAL CLIMATE AND CULTURE

 

Denise M. Rousseau

 

 

The organizational context in which people work is characterized by numerous features (e.g., leadership, structure, rewards, communication) subsumed under the general concepts of organizational climate and culture. Climate refers to perceptions of organizational practices reported by people who work there (Rousseau 1988). Studies of climate include many of the most central concepts in organizational research. Common features of climate include communication (as describable, say, by openness), conflict (constructive or dysfunctional), leadership (as it involves support or focus) and reward emphasis (i.e., whether an organization is characterized by positive versus negative feedback, or reward- or punishment-orientation). When studied together, we observe that organizational features are highly interrelated (e.g., leadership and rewards). Climate characterizes practices at several levels in organizations (e.g., work unit climate and organizational climate). Studies of climate vary in the activities they focus upon, for example, climates for safety or climates for service. Climate is essentially a description of the work setting by those directly involved with it.

 

The relationship of climate to employee well-being (e.g., satisfaction, job stress and strain) has been widely studied. Since climate measures subsume the major organizational characteristics workers experience, virtually any study of employee perceptions of their work setting can be thought of as a climate study. Studies link climate features (particularly leadership, communication openness, participative management and conflict resolution) with employee satisfaction and (inversely) stress levels (Schneider 1985). Stressful organizational climates are characterized by limited participation in decisions, use of punishment and negative feedback (rather than rewards and positive feedback), conflict avoidance or confrontation (rather than problem solving), and nonsupportive group and leader relations. Socially supportive climates benefit employee mental health, with lower rates of anxiety and depression in supportive settings (Repetti 1987). When collective climates exist (where members who interact with each other share common perceptions of the organization) research observes that shared perceptions of undesirable organizational features are linked with low morale and instances of psychogenic illness (Colligan, Pennebaker and Murphy 1982). When climate research adopts a specific focus, as in the study of climate for safety in an organization, evidence is provided that lack of openness in communication regarding safety issues, few rewards for reporting occupational hazards, and other negative climate features increase the incidence of work-related accidents and injury (Zohar 1980).

 

Since climates exist at many levels in organizations and can encompass a variety of practices, assessment of employee risk factors needs to systematically span the relationships (whether in the work unit, the department or the entire organization) and activities (e.g., safety, communication or rewards) in which employees are involved. Climate-based risk factors can differ from one part of the organization to another.

 

Culture constitutes the values, norms and ways of behaving which organization members share. Researchers identify five basic elements of culture in organizations: fundamental assumptions (unconscious beliefs that shape member’s interpretations, e.g., views regarding time, environmental hostility or stability), values (preferences for certain outcomes over others, e.g., service or profit), behavioural norms (beliefs regarding appropriate and inappropriate behaviours, e.g., dress codes and teamwork), patterns of behaviours (observable recurrent practices, e.g., structured performance feedback and upward referral of decisions) and artefacts (symbols and objects used to express cultural messages, e.g., mission statements and logos). Cultural elements which are more subjective (i.e., assumptions, values and norms) reflect the way members think about and interpret their work setting. These subjective features shape the meaning that patterns of behaviours and artefacts take on within the organization. Culture, like climate, can exist at many levels, including:

 

1. a dominant organizational culture

2. subcultures associated with specific units, and

3. countercultures, found in work units that are poorly integrated with the larger organization.

 

Cultures can be strong (widely shared by members), weak (not widely shared), or in transition (characterized by gradual replacement of one culture by another).

 

In contrast with climate, culture is less frequently studied as a contributing factor to employee well-being or occupational risk. The absence of such research is due both to the relatively recent emergence of culture as a concept in organizational studies and to ideological debates regarding the nature of culture, its measurement (quantitative versus qualitative), and the appropriateness of the concept for cross-sectional study (Rousseau 1990). According to quantitative culture research focusing on behavioural norms and values, team-oriented norms are associated with higher member satisfaction and lower strain than are control- or bureaucratically -oriented norms (Rousseau 1989). Furthermore, the extent to which the worker’s values are consistent with those of the organization affects stress and satisfaction (O’Reilly and Chatman 1991). Weak cultures and cultures fragmented by role conflict and member disagreement are found to provoke stress reactions and crises in professional identities (Meyerson 1990). The fragmentation or breakdown of organizational cultures due to economic or political upheavals affects the well-being of members psychologically and physically, particular in the wake of downsizings, plant closings and other effects of concurrent organizational restructurings (Hirsch 1987). The appropriateness of particular cultural forms (e.g., hierarchic or militaristic) for modern society has been challenged by several culture studies (e.g., Hirschhorn 1984; Rousseau 1989) concerned with the stress and health-related outcomes of operators (e.g., nuclear power technicians and air traffic controllers) and subsequent risks for the general public.

 

Assessing risk factors in the light of information about organizational culture requires first attention to the extent to which organization members share or differ in basic beliefs, values and norms. Differences in function, location and education create subcultures within organizations and mean that culture-based risk factors can vary within the same organization. Since cultures tend to be stable and resistant to change, organizational history can aid assessment of risk factors both in terms of stable and ongoing cultural features as well as recent changes that can create stressors associated with turbulence (Hirsch 1987).

 

Climate and culture overlap to a certain extent, with perceptions of culture’s patterns of behaviour being a large part of what climate research addresses. However, organization members may describe organizational features (climate) in the same way but interpret them differently due to cultural and subcultural influences (Rosen, Greenlagh and Anderson 1981). For example, structured leadership and limited participation in decision making may be viewed as negative and controlling from one perspective or as positive and legitimate from another. Social influence reflecting the organization’s culture shapes the interpretation members make of organizational features and activities. Thus, it would seem appropriate to assess both climate and culture simultaneously in investigating the impact of the organization on the well-being of members.