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By: Helios on November 3rd, 2021

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What Leaders Need to Know About Organizational Subcultures

Organizational culture

Have you ever had to hotdesk in a different part of the building? Or have you spent a day working from a regional office? If so, then you’ll know that culture can vary a lot across a single organization.

Sometimes, these variations are so substantial that they create an entirely new culture. These mini-environments are known as subcultures.

It can be worrying to have teams that work outside of your organizational culture. After all, 78% of CEOs say that their culture is a core part of their company's value. You don’t always need to worry about subcultures, though – they’re a natural part of office life. But you do have to be aware of how subcultures emerge and how they play a role in your strategy.

Most importantly, you have to make sure that these subcultures don’t become counter-cultures, which can be a big problem for leaders.

Why do organizational subcultures emerge?

First of all, let’s talk about how culture develops.

Each company has a dominant culture. This culture extends all the way to the C-Suite and is a major part of your employer brand.

Leaders can do certain things to nurture their preferred dominant culture. For instance, you can set priorities, offer guidance to employees, and create a structure for team communication. Most importantly, you can lead by example and model your ideal culture through your behavior.

But when all is said and done, culture is not imposed from above. Instead, culture emerges from within the team your team and their day-to-day interactions.

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Therefore, it stands to reason that when one group operates independently, that group will develop its own cultural variations. In some cases, this will evolve to become a full-blown subculture.

Where do subcultures emerge?

You can often find subcultures when there’s something distinctly different about a team, such as:

The question for leaders is not how do you stop subcultures from emerging? The question is: how do you stop a subculture from becoming toxic?
  • Location: Regional teams usually develop their own customs and best practices in response to the local environment. This is often a positive sign, as it shows that the team is in tune with the local market.
  • Function: Job functions can often generate their own subcultures. For instance, think about the difference between a legal team and sales team, or between customer service and logistics. Each of these functions has different priorities – and priorities help to define culture.
  • Age: The current workforce is comprised of four distinct generations – Boomers, Gen X, Millennials, and Gen Z. The generational gap can sometimes lead to age-related subcultures emerging. For example, if the company is dominated by Baby Boomers, the dominant culture will be Boomer-oriented. A team of Gen Z employees within that company may develop their own subculture.
  • Working patterns: Since the pandemic, employees have demanded working patterns that suit their personal needs. This can lead to emerging subcultures, such as the culture of remote workers or hybrid team members. There may also be a difference between people who work fixed hours and those on a flexible schedule.
  • Local leadership: Never underestimate the influence of local leaders on your culture. Each manager has their own style, which means their own approach to encouraging collaboration, adapting to change, setting priorities, and sharing information. If the leader is out of step with the rest of the organization, the team might give birth to a new subculture.

Subcultures can also emerge for less predictable reasons. For instance, a team that socializes together outside of work might develop its own local subculture. Equally, a team with high levels of internal conflict might develop its own way of doing things.

So, the question for leaders is not how do you stop subcultures from emerging? The question is: how do you stop a subculture from becoming toxic?

What’s the difference between a subculture and a counter-culture?

Organizational subcultures are usually benign. It’s just a sign that your team is adapting to a different environment or to different priorities. As long as this culture is oriented with the organization’s goals, there’s nothing to be concerned about.

But sometimes, a subculture will actively work against your strategy. This is a counter-culture, so called because it runs counter to your dominant culture.

As an example, let’s imagine a business called Crumb Industries Inc., which manufactures and markets widgets that they sell directly to customers.

An HR expert is called in to perform a cultural analysis of Crumb Industries Inc. and they discover the following:

Dominant culture

Crumb Inc’s core values are all about providing a superb customer experience. The leadership team wants to build long-lasting customer relationships, which they do with great service and great products

The company’s dominant culture is aligned with these values. People in the marketing and product development teams always collaborate and share data about customer feedback. At meetings, leaders always seek out new ideas that will help provide a better experience.

Subculture

The manufacturing team doesn’t interact with customers directly, so they don’t have a customer-centric culture. There’s less collaboration between team members and some resistance to change. Staff in this subculture mostly focus on their quality KPIs – they want to ensure that every widget is in perfect condition before it reaches the customer.

Employees on this team experience a different kind of culture. But the subculture is ultimately aligned with the core value of providing an excellent customer experience. For this reason, the subculture is actually beneficial to the overall culture.

Counter-culture

Meanwhile, Crumb Industries Inc. has a sales team working on very ambitious revenue targets. Salespeople are under pressure to close every lead, which leads to a highly competitive, winner-takes-all culture. There is little collaboration between colleagues, and almost no discussion of ways to improve the customer experience.

In this example, the sales subculture is now working against the main corporate values. Customers might feel pressured into buying a product they need, which leads to a poor experience. The subculture has become a counter-culture, and senior leaders need to step in.

Related reading: How to Build a Thriving Organizational Culture

How to fix a toxic subculture

The distinction between a subculture and a counter-culture isn’t always obvious. As a leader, your job is to assess each culture on its own merits and ask: is this subculture helping us meet our goals, or is it holding us back?

If you do need to take action, here are some steps to consider.

1. Engage with local leaders

Team leaders can influence the local culture. They perform vital tasks like setting team priorities, handling conflict, and overseeing change projects. The leader’s own personal style might have an influence on culture too – for example, someone with an abrasive communication style will breed a culture that’s not collaborative.

2. Restate your values

Teams can have their own way of doing things, but you must all be united by the same why.

Values are the why of your culture. Why do we do things this way? Why do we communicate as we do? Why are we focused on this task? If your company has a high level of cultural variation between teams, it’s often a sign that you need to restate your values. Each team can have its own way of doing things, but you’re all united by the same why.

3. Mix up teams

A lack of diversity can have an impact on culture. For example, all-male teams can sometimes develop a toxic “bro culture”. A simple fix for this problem is to mix teams up and introduce some new faces to each group. If you don’t have diverse employees to call upon, you might need to review your hiring practices.

4. Stamp down on toxic behavior

Sometimes, one person can be the driver of a toxic subculture. Often, this is a person in a position of power, such as a local leader or a senior expert. Confronting people about their behavior can be a challenge, especially if it’s someone who is an essential part of the team. However, always remember that a cohesive team spirit is worth more than any individual contribution.

5. Bring in expert help

A toxic subculture is often caused by deep-lying HR issues. For example, if your hiring and onboarding processes are misfiring, or if you need to improve communication with employees, or even if you just need to review compensation so that everyone feels valued. Bringing in an expert can be a big help in these circumstances.

If you’d like to talk to an HR professional about your culture, get in touch with Helios HR today. Book a no-obligation consultation call with one of our team today, and find out how we can help you build a thriving culture.

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