Do Your Subcultures Align Or Undermine Your Company Values?

It can be surprising when you first see the signs of an organizational subculture forming

When the company is small, employees are much closer to the central embodiment of its mission, vision, and values, because everyone is working closely together. However, as it increases in size, something happens. Organizational subcultures forms when people of common situations, identities, or job functions gather around their own interpretations of the dominant company culture. These subcultures most commonly form when employees find they need to develop idiosyncratic behaviors, values, and goals to fulfill specific functions of their disciplines.

When those subcultures become more clearly defined, it’s not uncommon for leaders to spend their time trying to figure out if they’re an intrinsically “good” or “bad” thing. This is understandable. When you spend so much time building a singular mission, vision, and values system for your organization, it’s tempting to view any slight deviation from those things as wrong or bad.

But organizational subculture is an inevitability. It is frankly impossible to manage a one-size-fits-all culture narrative with a tight grip. As anyone who has witnessed an organization grow from the startup stage into something much larger can attest, meaningful and necessary differences in culture’s interpretation will arise at nearly every level.

Where do the dividing lines of organizational subculture form?

Edgar Schein’s theory of organizational culture defines three meaningful subcultures built around specific functions employees perform for the organization:

  1. The first is executives, whose primary concerns are finance and generating capital;
  2. The second is the technicians and experts, the problem-solvers that use technology to develop systems, processes, and knowledge;
  3. The third is operators, local cultures within the various units; the executors of the company’s day-to-day functions and the people who make and sell the company’s products.

However, leaders will have to deal with meaningful subculture groups several orders of magnitude both larger and smaller than these three categories. Schein may not formally consider these groups subcultures, but in more colloquial terms, leaders will see meaningful employee subcultures appear everywhere from individual departments to entire business units to regional and national business locations.

It’s here, in this Russian nesting doll quality, where leaders often chafe against the existence of organizational subculture. Anxious that deviation from the company culture’s broad vision may be harmful, they might ask, “Why do so many groups need their own values when we have clearly defined corporate core values?”

And values are the place to look if you want to determine if a subculture is truly harmful or not. Every company culture has a set of pivotal and peripheral values. The pivotal values are indispensable. They articulate why (and how) the company does the things it does. The peripheral values are important too, but more flexible. It will not threaten the organization’s integrity if they are not upheld.

A subculture that holds true to the pivotal values, but finds room for interpretation in the peripheral is not harmful. In fact, these subcultures will often help the business become more agile by finding new ways of doing things.

But a subculture that does not see merit in pivotal values will require intervention, as its way of doing things may be antithetical to the company’s goals. For leaders to root out the positive subcultures from the negative, they will need a deep understanding of the dominant company culture’s value system.

What about conflicts among subcultures?

In my personal experience, the biggest conflicts are more regional in nature. It comes so often from a lack of remembering to be respectful of our differences. “This is our process in the US, why isn’t China doing the exact same thing? Why can’t they do it there?”

These divisions make sense when you consider what organizational culture is supposed to do. Now there are many definitions for company culture, but one of the most common understandings is that culture is the beliefs, behaviors, assumptions, and values we share that help us accomplish our goals.

As much as we’d like to believe that those qualities are entirely self-determined, no company culture (nor organizational subculture) exists in a vacuum. Each aspect is influenced by our surroundings, upbringings, and national and cultural identities. When subcultures are closer together, those differences might appear smaller, more insignificant. But when subcultures are separated by greater distances, they become much more apparent. Non-negotiable, even.

As a result, it’s easy for an us-versus-them mentality to take root. Leaders, each representing their own organizational subculture, will fight over resources and bicker over positioning and strategy. And that will snowball quickly unless you have a strong leader that can act as a mediator and ask tough questions. They have to challenge the subcultures’ leaders appropriately.

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But most importantly, they need to center one big question in the conflict: “What are we trying to do here?”

If one subculture is doing something great but the other is trying to sabotage it, or vice versa, nobody wins. This isn’t about one subculture outshining the other to take home a trophy and win first place. They’re all on the same team. We all have to rely on each other if we’re truly going to win. That’s what the bigger umbrella of corporate culture represents.

Someone with leadership and managerial courage will need to get people aligned on that perspective. Which is not to say there won’t be any disagreements. Alignment on this ideal will often result in accepting that these different cultures have different processes. But that understanding is huge–not only for day-to-day operations but the overall health of the organization.

Managing subcultures is a lot like planning a trip. Say you and groups of friends want to take a trip to Florida. When you plug your destination into the GPS, many routes will appear. Some will be very direct. Others, more scenic. As long as everyone understands where they’re going, when they need to be there, and what they need to accomplish, it shouldn’t matter which route they take. When everyone is aligned, we should accept and encourage different paths.

Rob Seay

Rob Seay is the HR director for employee engagement and workplace culture platform Bonfyre. He is an accomplished Human Resources professional with proven leadership and management experience who has worked with leading businesses in various healthcare, enterprise tech and consumer goods industries such as Energizer Holdings, Covidien, bioMerieux and Anheuser-Busch Companies. Rob thrives when building talented teams and maintains positive employee relations during times of tremendous organizational change.