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Organizational Microclimates

I was in San Francisco for work last weekend.  It was great. San Francisco is the perfect city for people that hate being hot, hate being cold, and that love being angry all the time. That’s because of its microclimates. Due to hilly terrain and oceanic currents, weather conditions can vary dramatically between different pockets within the city.

Before I visited for the first time I thought that the packing advice I read based on these so-called microclimates was exaggerated. It brought to mind how many people the world over say something like “If you don’t like the weather here, just wait a minute…hyuk hyuk”. Well, San Francisco rolls its eyes at those people before disappearing under a fog bank, while donning a trench coat and applying SPF 60.

Activity tracker enthusiasts must get frustrated by exploring San Francisco on foot, because My Fitness Pal doesn’t allow you to log “Took my jacket off and put it back on for 7 hours straight”.

Anyway, where were we? Oh yeah, microclimates.

Organizational Climate

Despite its second billing to culture (it can’t lay claim to an overused apocryphal quote about its fearsome ability to eat things for breakfast), organizational climate is more often what we’re really talking about when we say culture.

While many confuse culture and climate, they are generally regarded as having meaningful differences with practical implications.

Edgar Schein describes organizational culture as “a pattern of shared basic assumptions that a group learns as it solves major problems of external adaptation and internal integration.”

Climate is considered to be the attitudes and feelings that individuals have about how their immediate or local team is managed, and how they work together.

Schein again: “A climate can be locally created by what leaders do, what circumstances apply, and what environments afford. A culture can evolve only out of mutual experience and shared learning.”

It should be also apparent that the climate can often change pretty quickly. The climate is often based on events, people’s reactions and incidents between people. The culture is less dependent on individual events, but tends to drive people’s interpretation, thinking, and perspectives of events that occur.”

So, organizational climates are impermanent, more superficial and changeable, and more local than culture. While subcultures in organizations absolutely exist, we can almost certainly expect that microclimates are even more common, given the influence that varied managerial practices and recent interactions and events have on the climate within teams. We’re talking about shared experience of ‘surface conditions’, which of course vary between groups and teams in our organizations.

This seems obvious, and yet we forget it. In part, that’s because we often assume that there should be a consistent culture throughout our organization, that can be measured reliably at a particular moment as though it were static and monolithic. Most popular writing about culture suggests, if not explicitly states, that is the case. It’s easy to let this assumption carry over to our thoughts, if we have any, about climate too.

But what’s also true is that we can’t avoid being in our own way when we try to intuit what the climate in our organization is. Just as we cannot avoid bringing our own preconceptions and cultural baggage to the assessment of an organization’s culture, we cannot help but assume that there is some degree of universality for our own experience of the climate of our organization.

Think about how the employee in an unhappy team assumes that everyone across the company is unhappy. They see a message go out about Janice’s last day and point to it as a sign that everyone’s jumping ship: “See? They’re losing their best people, and they don’t care.”

If we march out into our organizations unprepared for this variation in climate, we are likely to be in for a shock about how we’re received, about how communications and programs are perceived, and the value of org-wide solutions.

Awareness of these microclimates, not as problems to be solved, but as natural features of a complex system, is a way to see our organizations more clearly as they are. The assumption, or insistence, that your organization is a certain way will not make it so, any more than shouting at the clouds will make it sunny.

So don’t forget your jacket…and your sunscreen.

Recommended Reading:

On (Not) Reskilling in the Digital Organization – Stowe Boyd, Work Futures Daily

This is from Stowe Boyd’s Work Futures newsletter (watch for an upcoming post about the newsletters I read and recommend), in which shares excerpts from the 2018 Digital Business Report from MIT Sloan Management Review and Deloitte:

“Melissa Valentine, assistant professor of management science and engineering at Stanford University, says, “It seems pretty clear that the boundary of the firm is changing in significant ways. I hear the ‘core periphery’ idea a lot here in Silicon Valley.” In that model, a company relies on a group of core employees it plans to invest in and nurture while tactically leveraging networks of external, on-demand talent. Even large companies, Valentine notes, may consist of a “core team and then peripheral employees and projects around it” instead of full-time employees working for a single company. For some companies, this model may require a new perspective on how to blend full-time employees with talent sourced from the open market. Recent studies find that employers expect to dramatically increase their dependence on contract, freelance, and gig workers over the next few years.”

Boyd says:

“So, why invest in non-core workers when the long-term strategy is to ‘dramatically increase dependence on contract, freelance, and gig workers’ in the years ahead, and those non-core workers will have to reskill themselves on their own nickel. The plan is to externalize those expenses, and avoid the effort and expenses involved with reskilling those soon-to-be externalized workers, along with their benefits, social security, insurance, and other costs.

Of course, this is just modern hypercapitalism played to its logical conclusion, and in this case the non-core workers — and/or federal and local government — will be left with the bill for the reskilling as companies reorganize around these principles.

I think that is terrible social policy, but in this economic climate it is being promoted as good business, no matter the greater costs and their true impacts. And ultimately, these businesses are strip mining their future.”

5 Thoughts on Self-Help – Austin Kleon

A thoughtful reflection on the self-help genre, with insights that can be applied more broadly.

“One of the worst things that self-help can do is convince you that you as an individual are to blame for all of your problems, and that if you’re struggling it’s just because you aren’t making the right moves.

Worst of all, some self-help books imply that if the book fails to help you, it’s not the book’s fault, it’s yours”

Hmmmm…you could probably say the same about a lot of business and leadership books.

#MeToo movement finds an unlikely champion in Wall Street with the new ‘Weinstein clause’ – Elizabeth C. Tippett, The Conversation

Interesting article on what the author, a lawyer, sees as an unexpected response to the #MeToo movement.

“Basically, corporate lawyers have been adding a sentence that forces companies to disclose allegations of sexual harassment. On Wall Street, it has come to be known as the “Weinstein clause.”

That’s new. In my years as an employment lawyer, I worked on more than 50 corporate acquisitions. The work somehow managed to be both boring and stressful, as I rapidly sifted through masses of personnel documents to figure out what needed to be disclosed.

Although it was common to disclose ongoing lawsuits or threats of litigation, “allegations” or even internal complaints of harassment were not on anyone’s radar.

The arrival of the Weinstein clause signals how important #MeToo has become – not just as a social movement but as a business risk.”

Photo by Jakub Gorajek on Unsplash



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