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When Are Subcultures in Your Organization a Problem?

A major challenge of talking about something as complex as culture is that we have to be reductive to be succinct. Something as layered, nuanced, and invisible would take ages to accurately convey (if we could even put it into words), but often, we try to distill it into a soundbite. A few key words or phrases that we think make our organization distinct from the average company.

“Keep learning. Explore crazy ideas”

“The Customer is Not Always Right”

“Warrior Spirit; Servant’s Heart, Fun-luving Attitude” (Note: Guys, I just found out these are actually Southwest Airlines’ values and I can’t even)

Although most organizations talk about their cultures as being unique and monolithic (that is, consistent throughout the organization, which is often an unstated assumption underlying the practice of hiring for ‘culture fit’), this is rarely the case.

Subcultures are a common feature of groups large and established enough to have an established culture and differentiation within their membership. A subculture can form when a group of people within the dominant or majority culture have a common set of values, or a common experience, that differs from the majority culture in a way that is significant to them.

The most obvious example is professional subcultures; your finance team likely has  shared experience and values related to their professional training and their individual identity as accounting and finance professionals. This experience may be slightly at odds with an organization’s dominant culture, for example if it emphasizes innovation and creativity (“Move fast and break things”). As a result, a subculture may arise in the finance team that guides their day-to-day behavior in a manner that better suits their professional values and obligations.

Note that that this is not necessarily negative. It creates a shared sense of purpose, belonging, and cohesion for the finance team, and honours their professional culture, which will generally be able to co-exist with the dominant culture. In fact the tension that it perpetuates between a dominant culture that might wish to invest money in a new venture, and a more conservative subculture that might demand the rigour of a business case and budgeting process, may very well be good for the organization as a whole.

Other subcultures might form based on tenure, legacy groups (like acquired companies), geographic locations, or level.

Sub-cultures Do Create Complexity

While the academic study of subcultures in societies has evolved away from a view that they represent a kind of deviance or resistance to a majority culture, into a view that they offer another way for members of a culture to define their distinctive identity, and confirm their belonging, some of us in organizations have been slow to catch up. We often equate a lack of homogeneity as a symptom of organizational dysfunction, or a sign of individual misalignment with the values of the organization. This is not necessarily so, and if I can be the kind of jerk who quotes herself:

“If you are employed in a place where the culture is uniform across the entire workforce, I regret to inform you that you are not part of an organization, you are a part of a cult.”

Subcultures do add an important layer of complexity we should consider when embarking on org-wide initiatives. It can be easy and dangerous to ignore these groups in favor of designing programs or processes for your ‘average’ or ‘ideal’ employee. But  the ‘average’ employee is a construct, and change initiatives, messages, and programs designed for this imaginary person will land very differently with the varied groups in your organization, sometimes producing dissonance or cynicism. This seems like an incredibly obvious fact that (in my experience) is often ignored.

When Sub-Cultures Become Counter-Cultures

Like cultures, subcultures are dynamic, and can become problematic, both for the organization and the members of the subculture. If overlap or alignment between the majority culture and the subculture decreases (gradually or as a result of a stressor) the members of the subculture may begin to feel that their way of working is undervalued or misunderstood, that their values are in opposition to the organization’s dominant culture, or that their identities are under attack. When a subculture feels pushed this way it’s likely to push back, overtly or otherwise.

What triggers such an event? It might be in response to a change program or internal communications campaign. If leaders fail to consider the way such an initiative might refract through the lens of a particular subculture, dissonance can result. New leadership or other major shifts can also be a catalyst.

More gradual influences can also tip subcultures into counterculture territory. There’s a scenario that I’ve seen again and again in organizations, and I bet you have too.

It starts with a manager who, for various reasons, is ill equipped. She may lack the skills, resources, or time to effectively manage and motivate her team, or she may find that her team is unwilling to grant her leadership the legitimacy she feels it deserves and requires to accomplish their objectives. Facing deadlines and a heavy workload she finds herself looking for Band-Aid solutions to get her team to accept her authority and just deliver.

If her group already has its own subculture, she may notice that this can be used as a powerful leverage point. By stoking a sort of in-group/out-group thinking she finds that she can manufacture group cohesion. This often sounds like:

“Those idiots at Head Office have no idea what we could accomplish if they weren’t constantly changing their minds. I’m sorry, it’s totally not my fault, but we need to have this done by Monday.” Or,

“I know, Team XYZ would be totally helpless without us. We’re basically earning their bonuses for them. It’s ridiculous. Let’s just get the documents revised for those monkeys.”

In the short term, this leads to a powerful feeling of belonging within a team. If they feel marginalized within the organization, this provides a renewed sense of status and a shared purpose. But it’s an illusion, and is likely to lead to further marginalization as other groups note the subculture members’ disdain for non-members, and lack of cooperation. Eventually, this manager’s leverage point loses its effectiveness, and the team may spiral into cynicism. This becomes very difficult to fix.

As Brene Brown says:

“”You’re either with us or against us” is considered a false dichotomy or a false dilemma. It’s a move to force people to take sides. If other alternatives exist (and they almost always do), then that statement is factually wrong. It’s turning an emotion-driven approach into weaponized belonging. And it always benefits the person throwing down the gauntlet and brandishing those forced, false choices.”

What To Do

Recognize Your Subcultures

The first step is recognize the existence of subcultures, and the fact that in most cases being aware of them is all that’s needed. Where distinct values or ways of working arise in groups and are not creating dissonance for team members, or challenges for the way a team contributes to the dominant culture, let them be! Managers who nurture the positive characteristics in these groups (whether by instinct or because they understand the cultural context) should be encouraged to do so.

Consider Subcultures when Planning Org-Wide Initiatives

This is mostly common sense stuff. Planning to roll-out a flexible working policy and know that it won’t align with the way that one or more groups work? Flag it for them in advance. Let them know you know, that you’re paying attention. If you’re communicating your new corporate values (“We always push the limits of possible”) but have a team whose long service and legacy with the company may reflect a very different experience? Talk to them about it. Don’t throw those values up on your lobby wall and make them feel like they’re the forgotten outsiders. Acknowledge the differences and explore areas (however small) of overlap. Help people see themselves in the majority culture, as well as build upon it so that it holds meaning for their team or group.

Watch for Signals of Subculture Shifts

If you notice a group’s behavior shifting (either suddenly or over time), dig deeper. Whether it’s outlier responses on a survey, or an increase in performance set-backs or conflicts, don’t chalk it up to a couple of ‘bad apples’ until you’ve considered the bigger picture. When a Manager uses in-group/out-group thinking to drive cohesion, team members will almost certainly take this as permission to be directly or indirectly hostile or uncooperative with non-team members. Don’t assume such an interaction is an isolated bad day. Pay attention to patterns.

If you discover that a manager has gone rogue in this way, explore why. Does he lack the resources, skills, or support to manage his team effectively? Caught early, and with a manager’s full cooperation, this cycle can be reversed, but it takes a lot of humility and a strong commitment to transparency and ongoing dialogue.

Disrupt the Cynicism Spiral

In cases where this situation has been overlooked or allowed to fester, significant action may be required to shift the dynamic that exists. Removing the manager, significantly changing the composition of the group (by moving people around into new teams or hiring new people onto the team), increasing the resources and attention given to the subculture group, and deliberately establishing new stories, language, and behaviours – all or a combination of these might be necessary. And this must be done without reinforcing the problematic beliefs that led to this in the first place (that is, if the group believed that they were marginalized and that the organization saw them as expendable, any steps that reinforce that belief will not solve the underlying problem).

If this sounds like a lot of work, requiring time and attention to the subtle dynamics of your organization, that’s because it is and it does! Which is why a lot of organizations don’t bother, and why I suspect that many of us have seen these types of stubborn challenges in companies.

Does this sound familiar? What have you seen trigger or solve these kinds of difficulties?

Read This Week:

How Fucked Up Is Your Management? – Melissa and Johnathan Nightingale

I’m about 70% of the way through this book, and had the opportunity to attend a Q&A with the Nightingales on Monday. They are as a thoughtful and humble in person as they are in their book (which is not what you might expect given the title). I keep finding myself nodding in violent agreement with their take on practical, back-to-basics management as a critical (and too rare) competency in organizations. If you know a new manager, give them this book!

“Yes, our employees are grown-ups and should be capable of a degree of communication and self-management. Yes, they have a responsibility to ask questions if expectations aren’t clear. But as leaders and managers of managers, we should wear it every time an employee is fired. Whether you buy the servant leadership stuff or not, you have a power over the people on your team that you should feel, every day, like you have to earn.”

The Polarity of Being and Doing – Ronni Hendel-Giller,

Absolutely love this post from Actionable Consultant Partner Ronni Hendel-Giller on the tension between being and doing, and the way that leaders can reframe it to ensure they are contributing to effective cultures in their organizations. This really speaks to the ongoing thinking that I’ve been doing this year about the polarity between ‘control and ‘chaos’ and Ronni’s reminder that we often assume that “high risk requires high control”.

“It is time for all us heroes to go home because, if we do, we’ll notice that we’re not alone. We’re surrounded by people just like us. They too want to contribute, they too have ideas, they want to be useful to others and solve their own problems.”

A Study Used Sensors to Show That Men and Women Are Treated Differently at Work Stephen Turban, Laura Freeman, Ben Waber, HBR

This article describes findings from a very interesting study that explored whether women’s behaviour in the workplace was the cause of different rates of promotion.

“Our analysis suggests that the difference in promotion rates between men and women in this company was due not to their behavior but to how they were treated. This indicates that arguments about changing women’s behavior — to “lean-in,” for example — might miss the bigger picture: Gender inequality is due to bias, not differences in behavior.

Bias, as we define it, occurs when two groups of people act identically but are treated differently. Our data implies that gender differences may lie not in how women act but in how people perceive their actions.”

Photo by Kimson Doan on Unsplash


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