Understanding organizational subcultures and countercultures

If you want to understand your workforce more, it's time to look into your organizational subcultures and countercultures.

April 27, 2020
Darpan Keswani

Talking about something as layered, nuanced, and intangible as organizational subculture and counterculture is difficult to put into words. So, it comes as a surprise when most modern businesses try to define their entire workforce with a catchy slogan in an attempt to separate themselves from the average organization.

And though most companies like to talk about their cultures as being unique and constant, that is rarely the case. As organizational culture does not account for the differences between tasks, expertise, and professions that exist within a company.

What are subcultures and how do they form?

Subcultures form when a group of people within the organization have a common set of values or experiences that differ from the dominating culture, in a way that suits their group’s values and obligations.

Subcultures might form based on tenure, legacy groups (like acquired companies), geographic locations, or hierarchy. For example, your marketing department is a collection of individuals who have similar experiences, training, and values, and are likely to develop working practices that bring out the best in them. The way they operate (“here’s to the crazy ones”) may be in direct contrast to your company’s culture which promotes a measured, calculative approach.

Subcultures aren’t always negative

And while subcultures may seem counterintuitive to how your organization operates, they aren’t always negative. A good subculture co-exists with the dominant culture and creates a sense of purpose, belonging, and cohesion within employees, making it good for the organization as a whole.

So, when do subcultures become a problem?

When subcultures evolve into countercultures.

As a leader, you must realize that subcultures are dynamic, and if members of a subset feel undervalued, misunderstood, or under constant scrutiny, they will fight back. This resistance reduces alignment between the dominant culture and the subculture, causing larger problems in the long-term, such as lower productivity levels or employee turnover.

What triggers the change from coexisting to counterculture?

Answers vary, but reasons include a change in internal policies, communications, or leadership.

Here’s a scenario Jane Watson, founder of Talent Vanguard has seen time and time again throughout her career:

It starts with a leader who lacks the time, resources, or skills to inspire her team to do good work.

In an attempt to cope with the increasing workload and deliver on time, the manager may find himself micro-managing the team, and implementing policies and procedures that interfere with existing subculture, just so the job gets done.

In the short-term, the brute force approach works, but as employees begin to realize that the new solutions are counterintuitive to the way they work, they begin rejecting the leader.

The manager retaliates by marginalizing employees who don’t follow his rules in attempt to establish authority and legitimacy. In response, the formerly co-existing employee subculture evolves into counter-culture, where team members do as they please, and might act against the good of the company as a whole.

In Conclusion

Organizational subcultures cannot be broken up into clean-cut categories the way financials or marketing plans can. This is due to the fact that the different types and levels of subcultures vary greatly between teams, departments, and hierarchies. This means understanding and managing subcultures requires dedicating a lot of time and attention to the subtle dynamics of your organization, but it’s effort that pays off in the end as it minimizes stubborn challenges that may damage your company greatly in the long-run.

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