How a Unified Climate Theory Can Help the Advancement of Organizational Climate Research

September 28, 2023

Jake Smith headshot

                     Jake Smith

Organizational climate, or how people believe they are expected to act and interact with each other at work, is one of the most widely studied concepts in business and psychology. Researchers have extensively studied how organizational climate affects various aspects of organizations. For example, when more people share the same views of “the way things are,” the “stronger” the climate and the greater impact it has on certain behaviors or outcomes. 

Theoretically, organizational climate researchers have not provided any clear, unified explanation for why or how climate even exists, nor why and how it impacts people. Instead, there are different sets of climate theories and literature often borrowed from other fields or conveniently utilized to serve the needs of a specific stream of climate research. Due to piecemeal theorizing and siloed literature streams, climate researchers are often unaware of advancements made by one another, which limits the ability to understand what is known about this critical part of the social context of work—nonetheless limiting the progress in this field of research.

In a new article published by the Journal of Applied Psychology titled, Integrating Organizational Climate Theory: A Domain-Independent Explanation for Climate Formation and Function, Rucks Department of Management and Flores MBA Program Instructor Jake Smith and co-authors provide a conceptual review of the history of climate research, enlighten scholars of the lack of theoretical unity, emphasize why unification is critical, and propose a unified theory of climate to explain why and how climate arises and influences behavior. Overall, the authors were able to help researchers in the organizational climate field better understand what’s already known, making it easier for them to make new discoveries in the future.

Research Processes & Outcomes

The authors investigated all organizational climate research in top social scientific journals from 2009 to 2021 that published climate research to make the case that there was an inconsistent, piecemeal theorizing of the field. They integrated the foundational and historical contributions of social scientists (from the early-to-mid 20th century to today) to aid in building their model of climate theory.

Because this is a theory paper (rather than an empirical one), it serves as a foundation for future organizational climate scholars to test the authors’ central propositions.

  1. Uncertainty causes stress and anxiety. In organizational life, uncertainty can arise for many reasons. For example, when a person starts a new job, anxiety often occurs because of the uncertainty of this new work environment. In turn, humans are naturally driven to make sense of a new environment and, ultimately, behave in a way that helps conform to new surroundings, which helps to satisfy what researchers call “social needs.” Therefore, the authors believe that uncertainty motivates people to look at how others tend to behave to inform them how to act (i.e., engage in “social sensemaking”) to fit in with coworkers and a work environment. 
  2. The drive to reduce uncertainty (or maintain certainty) motivates us to find stability and patterns in our social contexts, such as the workplace. Order in our environment is created through “social symbolic interaction,” whereby we interpret others’ behavior and give meaning to how people act and interact with each other. As we give meaning to these interactions, others are doing the same. Then, we come together to act in alignment with one another and begin to share in the creation of “the way things are around here.” Once this climate is established, it’s reinforced by the ongoing interactions among those coworkers, strengthening the climate and behaviors. For example, if you enter a workplace where people willingly help each other, you tend to engage in more helpful actions as well. 
  3. We have a psychological need to belong and relate to others, which is particularly important within the work context. People want to assimilate with their coworkers and their organization. Therefore, to alleviate the social uncertainty of how they fit in, people tend to act in accordance with the existing climate. Hence, climates influence individual and collective behavior and reduce uncertainty in the work environment.

Important Implications for Business Leaders

Although this paper has the greatest implications for scholars who study organizational climate and are now able to “speak the same language,” there are also important practical implications for organizations. Managers and leaders should be mindful that employees— especially those promoted to a new role, starting with a new workgroup, or recently hired into the organization — experience the stress of social uncertainty and are driven to fit in with their surroundings. Therefore, if you want people to “ “assimilate quickly, leaders would be wise to ensure a thoughtful, meaningful onboarding process for new employees that emphasizes socializing them into their new environment. 

Similarly, leaders should understand how they can directly impact the climates of their teams and organizations as employees“ look to the leader for social cues, behavioral guidelines, and expectations. Therefore, managers should consider that their actions and interactions are regularly observed and interpreted, which impacts the subsequent behaviors of those on the team.

Read the full study: 


About the Journal of Applied Psychology

The Journal of Applied Psychology® emphasizes the publication of original investigations that contribute new knowledge and understanding to fields of applied psychology (other than clinical and applied experimental or human factors, which are more appropriate for other APA journals). The journal primarily considers empirical and theoretical investigations that enhance understanding of cognitive, motivational, affective, and behavioral psychological phenomena in work and organizational settings, broadly defined.

About the Rucks Department of Management

The Rucks Department of Management at LSU’s E. J. Ourso College of Business endeavors to prepare students for careers in fields such as international management, human resources, and strategic leadership. A generous donation by LSU alumnus William W. Rucks and his wife, Catherine, has aided the department in securing faculty who are repeatedly recognized for their research and has aided student-affiliated organizations in achieving top honors nationally. For more information, visit the Rucks Department of Management or call 225-578-6101.