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July/August 2019Vol. 20, No. 6Sustainable Change Is Built on a Foundation of Well-Aligned Culture and Climate

Written by the Capacity Building Center for States

To protect the well-being of children and families, child welfare agencies must adapt to meet new challenges and the changing needs of the families and communities they serve. The stakes are high, and decisions made by child welfare agencies have far-reaching and long-lasting implications for all involved. For these reasons and more, the health of child welfare agencies should be a top priority.

One aspect of organizational health is an agency's culture and climate. Organizational culture refers to the shared behavioral expectations and norms in a work environment (Glisson, 2015). This is the collective view of "the way work is done." Organizational climate represents staff perceptions of the impact of the work environment on the individual (Glisson, 2015). This is the view of "how it feels" to work at the agency.

Examining an organization's health through the lens of culture and climate provides vital information on an organization's ability and readiness to take on new initiatives, partner with families, and collaborate effectively with stakeholders to improve outcomes and better meet family needs (Capacity Building Center for States, n.d.b.).

Subdimensions of Organizational Culture and Climate

Three subdimensions of culture and climate, highlighted below, can provide child welfare agencies with important context for thinking about how culture and climate can support or hinder a new program or initiative (James Bell Associates & ICF, 2015; Capacity Building Center for States, n.d.a.).

  • Leadership vision and commitment—This refers to the view provided from the top, including agency leaders' commitment to a new practice or program and their communication of intended change to stakeholders. For example, imagine an agency decides to add a program with peer-to-peer support for parents. Have agency leaders prioritized this program? Have they communicated the benefits of involving parents formerly receiving child welfare services in a program to support parents currently receiving services? Have they aligned it with other ongoing initiatives?
  • Organizational norms, values, and purpose—This refers to written and unwritten guidance and expectations for how workers behave and how things are done in the organization. Does the new peer-to-peer support program align with the agency's stated mission and goals? Do staff value parents' voices and expertise? If not, what can be done to shift the culture to support the new program?
  • Workforce attitudes, morale, motivation, and buy-in—This refers to staff perceptions of the agency environment, programs, and practices. Is there frontline worker buy-in and motivation for the new program? Why or why not? What impact will that have on the program's success?

Aligning Culture and Climate

Looking at culture or climate alone only shows part of the organizational picture. Culture and climate must be understood in relation to each other.

For example, if the organization values innovation and continuous improvement (culture) and agency staff feel they have a voice at all levels of the organization (climate), the organization is well positioned to implement new programs and practices effectively. Conversely, if the organization values innovation and continuous improvement (culture), but agency staff feel leaders and managers do not value their ideas and input or they are overwhelmed by existing workloads (climate), the organization will struggle to implement and sustain new programs and practices.

Culture and climate are well aligned when agency leaders and managers create a culture that achieves the following:

  • Reflects core values
  • Sets clear expectations for how the work of the agency will be done and provides the resources needed for staff to do the work (e.g., training, manageable caseloads)
  • Recognizes excellence among staff

As a result, the climate shifts so staff feel the following:

  • Clear about what is expected of them
  • Prepared to do the work
  • Appreciated for the work they do

For more information on assessing and addressing culture and climate, visit the Becoming a Family-Focused System webpage on the Center for States website.


Capacity Building Center for States. (n.d.a.). A guide to five dimensions of organizational capacity. Retrieved from

Capacity Building Center for States. (n.d.b.). Change and implementation in practice: Readiness. Retrieved from

Glisson C. (2015). The role of organizational culture and climate in innovation and effectiveness. Human Service Organizations: Management, Leadership & Governance, 39(4), 245-250. doi: 10.1080/23303131.2015.1087770

James Bell Associates, & ICF. (2015). Identifying, defining, and assessing child welfare organizational capacities. Unpublished work, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Children's Bureau, Cross-Center Evaluation of Children's Bureau Capacity Building Services.