The Unintended Consequences of Confusing a Healthy Workplace Climate with a Healthy Workplace Culture

HP06.1483 April07HHL copyIf the difference between a healthy workplace climate and a healthy workplace culture has you confused, you’re not alone. But without understanding the distinction between the two, you could be misdirecting your efforts trying to address healthy behaviors instead of the underlying – and more fundamental – aspects of health and wellbeing. The result? Your organization won’t have a strong foundation on which to build a lasting, thriving workplace culture.

Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast

You’ve probably heard the quotation from the late Peter Drucker, influential management theory thinker and writer: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast, operational excellence for lunch, and everything else for dinner!”

Workplace culture is more than just the latest buzzword. In order to grasp its critical importance, it is essential to have a clear understanding of what it means. While it can be difficult to articulate, this well-known story about five monkeys in a cage illustrates the deeply ingrained nature of culture and the power it has on individuals in a common environment.

As the story goes, scientists conducted an experiment that began with five monkeys in a cage that contained a ladder topped with bananas. Every time a monkey went up the ladder for a banana, scientists soaked all of the monkeys with ice water from a fire hose. This continued until not one monkey dared to go up the ladder.

One day, the scientists substituted one of the monkeys with another who had never been in the cage. Naturally, the new monkey immediately tried to scamper up the ladder to get the bananas, but before he could reach them, the other monkeys beat up the new monkey repeatedly. After several attempts, the new member learned not to dare to try to climb the ladder.

A second monkey was then substituted, with the same results — and this time, the first replacement monkey participated in beating up the new monkey. Gradually, each of the five monkeys was replaced, and what was left was a group of five monkeys who would not climb the ladder for a banana, even though none of them had ever been blasted with ice water for trying to do so.

If the monkeys could talk and you asked them why, they’d likely say something like, “It’s just the way we do things around here.” Does this sound familiar? This is the power of culture in shaping behavior.

Climate vs. Culture

The distinction between culture and climate can be even more clearly understood through the analogy of a river. Everything you see on the surface — the flow of the water, the shape of the riverbed – is climate. Climate itself is a manifestation of the underlying, ever-changing, yet powerful current: culture. Here are some examples for comparison:


While a healthy workplace climate seems to offer value for employees — and healthy lifestyle programs can offer some benefits — if the underlying organizational culture is unhealthy, these programs won’t actually improve the health of employees or your organization in the long term. And it’s very possible for an organization to have a healthy climate (often referred to as a “culture of health”) yet have an unhealthy or dysfunctional culture.

What do you think would most improve the wellbeing of the employees who are struggling to be productive because they have a difficult boss?

  • A workplace with minimal confusion and positive working relationships where they felt valued for their contributions?
  • Or a workplace that offered free gym memberships?

We like to say that culture eats wellness for breakfast, too!

What a Healthy Culture Can Do For You

In the Harvard Business Review article, “Creating the Best Workplace on Earth,” the authors discuss the findings of their investigation to find out what traits comprise the “workplace of your dreams.” The workplaces highlighted in this article only employ loyal, engaged, and happy employees, but they are also wildly successful. Not surprisingly, all of the traits they found relate to workplace culture.

We’ve created our own list of 14 characteristics of a thriving organization, which provide you with specific goals to achieve. It’s not a quick or an easy process, but building a thriving workplace culture will:

  • free, fuel, and inspire your employees to bring their best to work each day
  • increase creativity and productivity
  • improve employee morale and reduce employee turnover
  • streamline business practices
  • improve the bottom line

Most importantly, creating a thriving workplace culture will provide your organization with the greatest opportunity for improvement and competitive advantage in today’s marketplace.

Get started improving your workplace culture today! Take our FREE Manager’s Culture Audit.

Rosie Ward, PhD, MPH, MCHES, BCC, CIC®, CVS-FR Rosie is an accomplished speaker, writer and consultant. She has spent more than 20 years in worksite health promotion and organizational development. In addition to her bachelor’s degrees in Kinesiology and Public Health, and a doctorate in Organization and Management, Rosie is also a Certified Intrinsic Coach® Mentor, Certified Judgment Index Consultant, a Certified Valuations Specialist, and a Board Certified Coach. Rosie uses this unique combination to work with executive and leadership teams to create comprehensive development strategies centered on shifting thinking patterns. She is a contributing author to the book, “Organization Development in Healthcare — High Impact Practices for a Complex and Changing Environment.” She leverages these principles to help organizations develop and implement strategies to create a thriving workplace culture that values and supports wellbeing and the unique, intrinsic needs of employees. Contact Rosie at or

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