What is your definition of "climate"?

i-f875c0b07d9b3cb6229668554781b35a-alice.jpgOne of our research projects for ADVANCE involves doing a survey of people at Purdue asking them about their experience of Purdue's "climate." We're working on developing the survey, but one of the things we're finding interesting is that people's definitions of climate vary significantly, and tend to involve using other metaphors to define climate, itself a metaphor.

So I'm curious -- if someone were to ask you what your definition of "climate" was in the context of your work environment, what would you say? Not whether it was good or bad, but what the concept of "climate" means to you?

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Interesting question. I would say that climate refers mostly to how coworkers affect your work, but also to HOW things work. This would include:
-the personalities of others (is there is respect between others, and between the various "levels" of workers? Are there many collaborations?)
- the friendliness of the department as a whole (is there a social network, or does everyone just keep to themselves?, is there an overall positive or negative feeling?)
- do people help each other out (be it faculty, staff, students)?
- expectations of others (do TT profs expect new profs to do all at the work? How much work do supervisors expect of their students? Basically, what are the duties of each person, and are these the same for everyone at the same level?)
- policies and procedures of the department: do these mesh with your needs (i.e., how to deal with cheating students; how a graduate student can make a complaint about their supervisor; hiring a post-doc, etc.)?

That's all I can think of for now - but for me, the climate is directly related to the people.

Well, you can't legislate people to be friendly to one another. But you can establish expected norms of behavior, community standards so to speak. I guess I would get at the concept of climate by asking a bunch of questions. How explicitly are departmental (or whatever unit) norms and expectations established and communicated? If university sexual or racial harassment rules are violated, how is this handled? If you need resources or information of any kind, would you know where to go, or who to ask for help, or to point you in the right direction? Could you be sure of getting such help - no matter who you are? Does the department (or unit) tend to promote success of individuals or foster a spirit of competition, everyone for themselves, and survival of the fittest? What about a department's (unit's) materials - publications, websites, etc. - what kind of image do they present of the unit? Is it one that seems welcoming and inclusive or does it seem exclusive and off-putting to some? Are those materials sending unintended subtextual messages that contradict the intended explicit messages?

Climate is composed, perhaps, of all the signifiers a unit creates about itself, as well as all the daily interactions between members of that unit, and then perhaps also how that unit relates to and interacts with other units in the organization at large.

That's about as much as I can come up with right now.

We have a campus climate committee that does a lot of surveys to assess climate. One of the more interesting things that came out of some surveys was that faculty were very aware of how diverse our student body were and listed it as a positive thing about the campus. The students never mentioned diversity as a positive or negative and were largely oblivious to the whole issue. It was pointed out though that because most of our students grow up in the area and we have over 100 languages spoken in our city our diversity might not even register because it's just "the way things are". Fortunately, no new coursework was required (we already require way too much general education as it is). I bring this up because it illustrated for me how two groups can experience the same climate very differently because their context is different, making this a very squishy thing to assess.

Not entirely tongue in cheek: If the department secretary(ies)/office staff are happy, the department climate tends to be good. If they're not, department climate will deteriorate.

- Is your work environment openly supportive, quietly supportive, quietly hostile, openly hostile?

- Is work a place where you enjoy being? (If the life is sucked out of you every time you walk into your office, there's something wrong.)

- If you ask a question or make a suggestion, does anyone respond?

- If you wanted to switch research directions/wanted to teach a new class/got pregnant/had a sick family member, would you feel comfortable talking about it to anyone you work with?

- Do these questions seem absurd? (I would love to be able to always answer "of course!" to the previous three questions.)

Apparently there are many "climate" surveys available for use. You may not need to make up a new one. See http://www.engr.psu.edu/AWE/default.aspx for example.

I think of a good climate as one where I can be me. I can use a question to pose a solution to a problem and no one thinks I'm asking for a lecture. I can reference reading a manual for the photocopier and not be razzed about not being a real engineer. I can ask for help without being seen as weak or unworthy. I can ask for justification of my supervisor's decisions without being punished. I am valued as a whole person, whose work is only part of her life and value.

By Alisha Waller (not verified) on 18 Feb 2009 #permalink