“The mistake that distorts aiming and clouds leadership action is that many leaders confuse climate with culture.”

A few weeks ago a good friend and leader highlighted to me some good points about his problems with addressing culture in his firm. First, he noted the difficulty in changing the attitudes and behaviors of power groups, and how the change he must undergo must be an intentional process. Where to start?

The difficulty in changing is often compiled many by the fact that first, the culture of an organization is difficult to define, and second, many of the aspects of the culture are intangible and cannot always be seen.[1] This means that many times leaders have difficulty comprehending what the culture is, and more so, trying to figure out how to change something they cannot see. When my friend noted that the process must be intentional, I have to also noted that the leader must have a deliberate plan to address culture, not just a desire to do it, but a sincere personal commitment (in word but especially in action) to change it.

The mistake that distorts aiming and clouds action is that many leaders confuse climate with culture, and may be prompt to address climate and not affect culture. It’s important to note the difference between the two. In short, climate describes how members and staff feel about their organization (temporary attitudes, feelings, and perceptions of individuals). Why they feel the way they do is determined by culture (a normalized set of shared assumptions, beliefs, values, and behaviors). Climate is more overt and can change quickly; culture is more constant, implicit, and most often indiscernible aspects of organizations.[2]  Leaders must pay attention to both.

In addressing climate and improving morale, a leader may employ rewards or an award, a primary culture embedding mechanism described by organizational development expert Edgar Schein.[3] The employees may begin to work for the award (appearing that behavior modification begin to take place), and the leader may begin to think that, because morale (part of climate) is being addressed, the leader has positively affected culture. In this instance, the leader may have addressed climate but culture was not affected—unaffected normalized shared assumptions and beliefs).

Changing culture is not easy, but it can be done. It requires deliberate understanding (I mean deep thinking about what’s happening in the organization, raised over myths and superstitions). Then, the change requires guided, visible actions tied to strategic leadership goals. (I can give you more on that, but the paper is about ten pages long and scheduled to be published soon!).

The main thing is that leaders do something to address culture, even if the plan is not perfect. Some thought-through set of small actions done repeatedly will go such a long way than sitting at a coffee shop complaining about how hard it is to change culture. Just do it; change it, and don’t make up excuses!

Always motivated, lugo


[1] Schraeder, M., Tears, R. S., & Jordan, M. H. (2005). Organizational culture in public sector organizations: Promoting change through training and leading by example. Leadership & Organization Development Journal, 26(5), 492-502.

[2] Duh, M., Belak, J., & Milfelner, B. (2010). Core values, culture and ethical climate as constitutional elements of ethical behavior: Exploring differences between family and non-family enterprises. Journal of Business Ethics, 97(3), 473-489.

[3] Schein, E. H. (2010). Organizational Culture and Leadership (4th ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. 236-257.