Climate or culture? Understanding the difference to take the right approach

To remain healthy and competitive in an era where labour shortages abound, organizations must mobilize their workforce. When discussing organizational performance, two terms—climate and culture—invariably weave their way into the conversation.

Having a healthy workplace and an engaging organizational culture makes employees want to stick with the company and help it thrive. To better understand the difference between climate and culture, let’s take a closer look at the two concepts.

Work climate

Work climate refers to how employees feel they are treated by the organization. Like the weather, work climate can be fickle, which can have significant repercussions. How employees perceive it depends on the organizational policies and practices in place and the quality of their relationships, particularly with management.

A good work climate has a positive impact on people’s effectiveness and psychological well-being. On the flipside, people who feel poorly treated by their organization will protect themselves in any way they can—which may or may not be a good thing. When the work climate deteriorates, the negatives start to add up: tensions, interpersonal conflicts, grievances and complaints, reduced productivity, workplace accidents, absenteeism, high turnover rates, etc.

Organizational culture

Organizational culture refers to an organization’s “character.” It consists of intangibles such as the organization’s values, mission, and vision, as well as the beliefs of its leaders, the language used internally, shared references, implied rules, and informal management systems (rewards/reprimands). It also comprises tangibles such as the layout and cleanliness of the premises, dress codes, behaviours, symbols, and rituals.

“Culture is a set of values, beliefs, and experiences that implicitly set the tone for how we act as a group and that influence the behaviours and habits we adopt in our day to day.”

A culture that fits the workplace climate helps the organization perform and promotes psychological balance among its members. That’s why it’s important for leaders to provide clear direction and maintain it in an intentional way over time. 

What’s the best way to intervene when things aren’t working?

Climate and culture influence one another and can be hard to distinguish. A diagnosis is the first step to developing an action plan that addresses the root cause of the problem rather than just the symptoms. After surveying employees on facets of the organization (job satisfaction, communication, leadership, change management, etc.) and analyzing the data, we give our clients the tools they need to implement sustainable changes.

In concrete terms, when the work climate is bad, we help leaders and teams review their policies and management practices, develop individual and group leadership, transform their processes, lead engaging and constructive meetings on sensitive matters, and co-create healthy and effective interpersonal relationships.

When the organizational culture is a poor fit or outdated, it’s important to determine what needs to be revised from the start to optimize its impact on the organization. It’s an in-depth process—it takes much longer to change the corporate culture than the work climate.


Whether it’s to improve the work climate or develop the organizational culture, it’s important to get employees’ input in the process to ensure an inclusive and vibrant outcome. This incremental process can be incorporated into the organization’s calendar to give employees more than one opportunity to get involved in projects, improve them, and especially help implement them in their day to day in a sustainable way.

Companies that create an inspiring organizational culture and maintain a good work climate attract and retain the right people, contribute to their well-being, and in so doing, improve their results and ensure their sustainability.

What is the work climate like in your organization? Does the organization’s culture drive its performance? How do you plan to nurture it?

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Photo de Marie-Josée Lareau
Marie-Josée Lareau EMBA
  • Creativity & Innovation Leader | Organizational Transformation & Strategy
François Rabbat PhD, Organizational Psychologist
  • Senior Consultant | Organizational Transformation & Strategy

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