Understanding and Studying Departmental Climate

What is climate? How does it matter?
Organizational climate and its significance has a lot in common with environmental climate. The quality of the air we breathe, the importance of vitamins from sunlight, the risks inherent in some weather patterns, and the ways of life we develop to adapt to temperature and other patterns all have their equivalent in an organization. Climate in an academic department expresses itself through collegiality and respect, departmental policies, transparency and communication, the tenor of group discussions and dynamics, and the ways in which bias, misinformation, intimidation, or intolerance are expressed toward individuals or members of particular groups.

As with environmental climate, there's no organization that's sunny all the time. When climate is studied in an organization, the goal is not to create some mythical perfect place - in large part because there's no one climate that would be considered perfect by everyone involved. Rather, climate studies are intended to be sure that the resources are in place to weather tough times, that no individuals or groups are regularly left out in the rain, and that safety precautions are in place (lightning rods, tornado cellars) so that environment does not pose unnecessary dangers.

Finally, while it is possible for individuals to adapt to and survive in almost any environmental or departmental climate, the energy investment and adaptations required to do so can be significant. A sunnier, moderate climate has a much longer “growing season”: the potential for productivity, satisfaction, and return on investment at all levels is much greater.

How is climate assessed?

1. Individuals' ratings of climate-related factors
a. positive climate factors (e.g., collegial, respectful)
b. negative climate factors (e.g., sexism, homophobia)
c. key organizational factors (e.g., policies, leadership)

2. The specific experiences of individuals
a. incidents of bias, harassment, intolerant remarks, etc.
b. sources of stress, reasons an individual would consider leaving

3. Comparisons of experience across identified social identity groups
a. on general factors (e.g., women students feeling less confident that they will be successful in their field)
b. on climate-specific factors (e.g., women faculty experiencing more instances of exclusion than male faculty)

Most climate surveys extend far beyond consideration of climate including:

    Job satisfaction
    Structural integrity of organizational policies and procedures
    Program effectiveness
    Leadership feedback

These arenas may provide information about climate, or may be sources of change needed in order to improve a departmental climate.