Organizational Climate Research Paper

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1. What Is Organizational Climate?

Climate has been variously described as ‘the way things are around here’ (Schneider 1990) to ‘a molar concept reflecting the content and strengths of the prevalent norms, attitudes, behaviors, and feelings of the members of the social system which can be operationally measured through the perceptions of system members, or observational means’ (Payne 1990, p. 156). The Oxford English Dictionary defines meteorological climate as ‘the prevailing atmospheric phenomena and conditions of temperature, humidity, wind, etc., of a country or region.’ When applied to communities, climate is ‘the mental, moral, etc., environment prevailing in a body of people in respect of opinion, some aspect of life, etc.’ Thus, just as we describe climates in terms of sunshine, prevailing winds, levels of rainfall, etc., organizations are described in terms of dimensions such as leadership style (autocratic versus democratic), concern with the well-being of employees, emphasis on productivity, formalization or bureaucracy, innovation versus traditionalism, and commitment to quality in service or production.



2. Research Into Organizational Climate

One of the earliest uses of the concept of climate was in research conducted by Lewin, et al. (1939), who examined the effect of the leadership style of boys upon their work groups. Leadership style was categorized as autocratic, democratic or laissez-faire and the work-group climates were described, respectively, as hostile, unproductive, and unenjoyable; busy, cooperative, productive and enjoyable; and anarchic, unproductive, not cohesive and unsatisfying.

Subsequent research has examined climate at different levels of analysis including group, department, and organizational levels. Most researchers have concentrated on climate at work group, department or organizational levels. These supraindividual climates have been operationally constructed by aggregating individual perceptions of psychological climate to the appropriate level and using the mean to represent the climate at that level of aggregation. These organizational climate measures are now widely used in public and private sector organizations to determine the prevailing climate, often being called employee attitude surveys or employee opinion surveys.

One of the reasons why organizational climate surveys have become so widely used is that climate has been shown to predict organizational productivity and profitability (Denison 1990, Patterson et al. 1997, West and Patterson 1999), employee motivation, job satisfaction, job performance, organizational commitment, and stress. For example, Patterson et al. (1997) found that an organizational climate oriented towards good human relations predicted 29 percent of the variation between companies in productivity and profitability in the UK manufacturing sector. Because of these strong associations between climate and performance, both researchers and practitioners continue to be intensely interested in the concept.

3. Climate Or Climates?

There is uncertainty and debate about whether climate should be conceived of as a multidimensional concept or a unitary concept (Campbell et al. 1970, Payne and Mansfield 1973, James and Jones 1974). Campbell et al. (1970) argue for a small number of common dimensions that constitute climate, including individual autonomy at work, the degree of structure imposed upon people’s work roles, reward orientation (positive or negative), and warmth and support. Schneider and Reichers (1983) suggest that work settings actually have many climates and they argue for the study of facet specific climates. To their way of thinking, the choice of climate dimensions should be closely linked to the criteria of interests—climates are ‘for something,’ e.g., customer service or safety, and there is no generic organizational climate.

However, most researchers believe that organizational climate is most usefully applied as a multidimensional construct and that some dimensions are generic and applicable to most organizations. Of course, there will be some which are unique or at least applicable to only a small range of organizations (e.g., climates for secrecy in the defense industry or for caring in health care organizations). One orientation to the mapping of climate that has proved powerful is the competing values model of organizations (Quinn and Rohrbaugh 1981) which distinguishes between human relations, rational goal, open systems, and internal process constellations of organizational values.

4. The Competing Values Model

The competing values approach incorporates a range of fundamental dimensions of values into a single model. It calls attention to how opposing values exist in organizations and how organizations have different mixtures of values that influence their goals and how they go about achieving those goals. These values will most fundamentally manifest themselves in whether the organizational orientation varies more towards flexibility or control, and whether the focus of the organization varies more towards the external or internal environment. A major theoretical strength of this model is its derivation from four orientations to the study of organizational effectiveness reflecting long traditions in work and organizational psychology. Thus the rational goal approach (external focus, but with tight control within the organization) reflects a rational economic model of organizational functioning, in which the emphasis is upon productivity and goal achievement. The open systems model (external focus and flexible relationships with the environment) emphasizes the interaction and adaptation of the organization in its environment, with managers seeking resources and innovating in response to environmental (or market) demands. The internal process approach reflects a Tayloristic concern with formalization and internal control of the system in order that resources are efficiently used. Finally, the human relations approach reflects the tradition derived from socio-technical theory, emphasizing the well-being, growth, and commitment of the community of workers within the organization. By combining these orientations into one model, Quinn and Rohrbaugh aimed to provide a broad conceptual map of the domains of organizational theory over the twentieth century. Such a map is useful in identifying the required topography of a climate measure applicable to a wide range of organizations. The model is also useful in reflecting the means for implementing those values in terms of managerial practices and the ends or outcomes which are emphasized or which compete in each domain. The model does not propose that organizations will locate predominantly in one quadrant, but, reflecting the rich mix of competing views and perspectives in organizations, proposes that organizations will be active and give emphasis to each domain but with differing strengths.

5. Climate Only Exists If We Agree About It

The research on organizational climate, however, is hampered by a particular methodological debate. It concerns the practice of aggregating individual employees’ scores on climate dimensions and taking the mean as a representation of organizational climate. Clearly, simply using the mean may mask profound differences between organizations and the variation of responses given by employees. Indeed, research within organizations has shown clear differences between hierarchical levels and departments in ratings of climate, suggesting a number of subclimates within each organization. When the level of analysis changes from the individual to the organization, the validity of the data is uncertain. The validity of aggregate climate used to describe organizations depends upon the demonstration of agreement between individual members and their perceptions. Conceptual agreement implies a shared assignment of psychological meaning under which circumstances and individual perceptions may be aggregated and treated as higher-order constructs. In such circumstances, the use of aggregated individual data to measure organizational climate is appropriate.

The main methodological problem with this latter approach, a demonstration of shared conceptions for aggregate climates, has provoked much debate in the research literature. However, writers have not specified what is an appropriate level of agreement. Some suggest that dichotomous questionnaire items should be used to measure climate and that the only items to be treated as descriptive of organizational climate should be those in which the frequency of endorsement is not significantly different from 0 percent or 100 percent. Others have suggested that 66 percent was reasonable, but few researchers have followed either prescription.

The validity of aggregating climate perceptions to the organizational level is further called into question by the demonstration that there are significant differences between members of different organizational subgroups in their perceptions of climate. Such differences have been found between groups within the same organization, based on factors such as hierarchical level, departments, divisions, regions, and work groups (Patterson et al. 1996).

Another approach to overcoming the aggregation problem is to examine the level of inter-rater agreement between individuals within an organization, in relation to their perceptions of climate. One approach is to use the intraclass correlation coefficient. This coefficient is based on a one-way analysis of variance and assesses the ratio of variation within organizations to variation among organizations. This coefficient has been criticized as inadequate and led to the development of the within-group agreement index of multiple item scales developed by James et al. (1993). This is a technique for assessing agreement among the judgements made on multiple item scales. There has been continuing debate about the advantages and disadvantages of this orientation, although the measure continues to be widely used. It seems likely that organizational climate measures will continue to be used, despite there being no simple or widely agreed criteria for aggregation. Part of the problem is that the level of agreement within organizations will depend partly on the measures employed, the context, and the domains tapped by the measures.

6. Climate vs. Culture

A further debate in this area is over the distinction between climate and culture. Both of these concepts are root metaphors, which are very different in orientation. Organizational culture is taken to refer to the underlying patterns or configurations of interpretations of formal practices, such as pay levels, hierarchy, and job descriptions; and informal practices such as norms, espoused values, rituals, organizational stories, jargon, humor, and physical environment. ‘The underlying patterns or configurations of these interpretations and the way they are enacted, constitute culture’ (Martin 1995). In general, researchers agree that climate is a measure of the surface manifestations of culture and is not entirely distinct from culture. Most researchers argue that culture can only be measured by qualitative methodologies, whereas climate as a more superficial characteristic of organizations can be assessed using quantitative questionnaire measures. However, these distinctions are largely artificial and it is true that both concepts of climate and culture are the subject of continuing debate because of their lack of theoretical and conceptual underpinnings.

7. Conclusions

Because organizational climate is a phenomenon that researchers experience in practice, in working in different organizations, and because the measures of organizational climate relate to important outcome measures, it is likely that the concept will continue to be used. It does however, remain a poorly defined and weakly theorized concept in the organizational sciences.


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