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Businesses today focus a lot of attention on their overall corporate culture, yet research has shown that the most influential environment in a workplace is at the team level. SSCA, an executive-leadership consulting firm, puts a particular emphasis on what it calls the “climate” among workplace groups. From Day One spoke with Stephanie Tran, a partner and executive coach at the firm, about the concept of climate, the behavioral science behind it, and the practical ways in which leaders can promote a healthy workplace. Excerpts:

How is climate different from culture, and who creates the climate?

If we want to observe culture, we would walk into an organization and see how they make decisions, see how they operate, and we would able to define their culture. Climate is a subset of culture, a smaller component within the organization that's directly controlled or created by the leader you report to. If we want to understand the climate that's created by the leader, we would interview the team and ask, “How does it feel to work for him or her? Describe the environment and what a meeting looks like.” Then we would get at the climate. I like to compare it to arriving in Guam, where I spent three years. Getting off the plane, what do you feel right away? You feel the heat wave, you feel the humidity. In a workplace, you can just walk into a meeting room and understand the climate. Is it a fear-based climate? Is it a climate that actually nourishes people to create psychological safety–people challenging one another in a healthy way?

From the research that’s been done, what are the elements that create a climate?

There are six components. One is all about the perception that we don't have rules that are unnecessary. We don't have to jump through hoops to get our job done. We’re empowered and enabled in a way that we feel that we can take risks. Therefore, we take full responsibility for our role, which is the second component of climate. We feel we can own our job and not have to check in with our boss all the time. But we know when to do it–we understand our guardrails. Third, we have a high standard on our team, we push for excellence, and there is a continuation of growth on our team. Fourth, we get rewarded, acknowledged, appreciated, and encouraged for doing a good job. We feel supported; our leader has our back. Fifth, we understand the big picture. We know the vision, the purpose of the organization, and how that links to our department or function and how that links directly to our role. We have clarity about what is expected. And finally, we have great pride and ownership of the team that we are part of. We're better as a whole. We have a team identity, we have trust.

Stephanie Tran, a partner and executive coach at SSCA (Photo courtesy of SSCA)

Did your company invent this concept?

That would be taking too much credit. It actually was from two gentlemen, Litwin and Stringer, who were students of the psychologist David McClelland, one of the key contributors to the understanding of human motivation. We teach a ton around human motivation, because a large component of leadership is about motivating people. If we know what motivates people, we as leaders create conditions where people will flourish. Litwin and Stringer came up with this concept of climate, which we teach almost daily in our coaching practice.

How has this era of pandemic and remote work affected workforce climates?

We get less clarity within our jobs and less alignment and connection points with peers or other departments, the kind of thing that happens organically when we're in a common space. We’ve lost the drive-by conversations where we just stop by someone's desk or cubicle to check in to see how life is and then, “By the way, what are you working on? And can I get some information on this?” The research also says that we're not losing connection with our “A” players, meaning relationships we've already built over time. We naturally reach out to them even in a virtual setting, to check in. Yet it's the “B” players or the relationships where we don't have a strong connection–it takes more effort to reach out to those.

What can leaders do about recreating a positive climate in a remote or hybrid work situation?

Clarity is one of the key components of climate. As a leader, are you being crystal clear about what the expectations are? Are you creating opportunities for people to speak to you? The reward component of climate is not about monetary rewards, it's about acknowledgement, appreciation and recognition. It is about holding space, whether virtually or live, for people to feel seen, heard and valued, given the challenges of today. So leaders need to spend time asking how people are doing, not in a quick transactional way, but letting people share the humanity of the change that we're all experiencing from this global pandemic. As a leader, expressing vulnerability and being authentic helps your people not have to compartmentalize their life. And the best way to do that is to model it.

How does diversity fit into the concept of a healthy climate?

The beauty of having diverse teams is that we have multiple angles, multiple perspectives, different experiences at play. Therefore, we're solving problems holistically, looking at angles that you wouldn't see by yourself. The challenge with diversity and inclusion is truly embracing the diversity–being able to park your own perceptions and make space for other perceptions to exist and truly be inclusive of that. It’s difficult to achieve, because leaders get rewarded and promoted for having an opinion, for stating an opinion, for having some conviction around their opinion. And then you get to a level where, oh, I have to actually embrace others’ thinking and entertain it in a way that maybe their ideas are better than mine. You have to be truly self-aware in order to act upon that–and not treat diversity and inclusion as just buzzwords.

How does the arrival of so many technological tools, and wholesale digital transformation, effect the stability of a workplace climate?

Technology is meant to be utilized as a tool to enable you to do your job. It's never, in my opinion, the strategy. I think technology can get in the way if we're not good at having it enable us, to help us work from anywhere, anytime. Technology actually inhibits climate if it’s not used to best effect. For example, some clients of ours don't turn on the camera when they’re on Zoom. So they’re inhibiting us from connecting as humans, face to face, which isn't ideal. Humans are meant for social interaction with one another. If we discount the importance of that connection, it will hurt the team dynamics.

In fact, can the use of technology sometimes create more workplace friction and frustration?

What is the terminology–keyboard warrior? If you think that in hiding behind a keyboard, you're not accountable for your behavior, you're wrong. People will still formulate an opinion about you, whether it's virtual or live. But I think it's even more pertinent that you manage that in a digital setting, where you need to be super-accountable, to make more effort to connect and bond with people, versus just the hit-and-run. I personally have to stop myself too. It's just too easy. Say you're going to the doctor's office or you're picking up your kids. You might want to check your email for five minutes and you want to just type up something on your phone to respond so you can check that off your list. But if your goal is to connect and relate to the person who's writing to you, you probably don't want to spend just five minutes. You probably want to be more thoughtful. Because at the end of the day, people don't follow organizations, they follow people.

In terms of the recognition aspect of climate, you talk about the platinum rule. How does that work?

Recognition for you might not be the same for me. The best way to know is to ask. On a team, I might say, Lisa, what's your favorite compliment? What is it about your job you enjoy most? What would you improve? I want to understand that, so that when I see an opportunity to appreciate you and encourage you, I would do what you would prefer. If the golden rule is to do unto others as you would have them do unto you, the platinum rule is to do unto others as they would have it done unto them. You might like public recognition, for example, while others like private recognition. They might appreciate you just spending time with them, developing or coaching them.

OK, to put your suggestion into action, what compliment would you most like?

I've been fortunate to receive some wonderful compliments in my life–and I think that's what keeps me going and makes me love my job so much more. It would be somewhere along the lines of, “You've made a difference in my life.” When I hear those words, I’m like, “OK, I'll work tirelessly another 40 years for that.”

Editor's note: From Day One thanks our partner who sponsored this story: SSCA.