Workplace Culture

How to Manage Subcultures in Your Organization

By Tricia Emerson

Jun. 11, 2018

This article originally appeared on Talent Economy.

You’ve felt it. Engineering believes sales overpromises. Supervisors roll their eyes at management. Operations thinks HR is a waste of time.

You are one company, but why aren’t you one team?

The issue is that you’re dealing with culture. And not just company culture — I’m talking about the nuance and power of subculture. It shows itself starkly when something that seems like a great idea to management is appalling to employees.

For example, United Airlines experienced this the hard way in March 2018 when they tried to implement a new bonus plan. They replaced a small quarterly bonus for every employee with a lottery that paid spectacularly for only a handful of people. Employee anger and frustration with the new plan hit the media and management pulled the program within a day. It’s possible that program appealed to management’s culture and violated the values of the employee subculture.

What is culture?

Culture is made of the unspoken rules that drive behavior, particularly when no one is looking. When a group of people engage in behavior successfully, they repeat it. That repeated behavior is your company’s culture.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Edgar Schein will tell you to look closely at values. Some are pivotal — they are essential to belonging to the group. Others are peripheral — you can compromise on those and still be a member. Those pivotal values are what anchor our people to their organizations. It’s imperative we understand the common values that link people and create active subcultures.

Knowing each of the subcultures for the groups within your organization can impact execution across your business, including how you hire, develop employees, collaborate, address quality, solve problems, deliver services and deploy projects.

Clearly, a one-size-fits-all culture strategy does not work. Again and again we see companies using just one lens to view a new initiative. And even if the change itself might work well for all subcultures, leadership often insists on using only one way to communicate and implement the initiative for everyone. No wonder we trip on unintended consequences.

Here are the five ways to manage subcultures:

1. Identify where the subcultures exist. Before you can manage something, you need to study it. Subcultures can form based on business unit, geography, job type or position, department or industry. They form wherever people interact regularly and can be based on something as simple as start time or smoking breaks. Think about your departments, functions, geographic and facility locations, and formal and informal communication channels. Draw maps of your organization with these commonalities in mind to find a natural starting point.

2. Determine the active culture and subculture. There are many reliable tools available to do this scientifically: Gallup CliftonStrengths, DiSC, InColor Insight, Myers-Briggs, the Organizational Culture Inventory and Culture Index, etc. These tools highlight nuance in how we prefer to communicate, collaborate, process information and persuade. They can also tell you how a desirable quality, like the analytic need to collect data before deciding, might show itself negatively when a person is stressed (analysis paralysis). This information can help you work other organizations with compassion and avoid misunderstanding.

That said, your informal observations are just as useful. List unifying themes, common behavior and stories from the grapevine. Identify examples of people regarded as heroes and those who are not. These data points can flesh out or validate your determination of a culture.

3. Think whole, part, whole. When you are communicating to a subculture, tie your message to the shared values at the organizational level (whole), then tie to the subculture (part), then end with the message that relates to the whole. Consider how Howard Schultz addressed the arrest of two African-American men in a local Starbucks on April 18. His approach followed roughly this pattern: I am ashamed; it’s not who we are as a company (whole: company values). The store manager has left the company. Let’s meet with the men (part: local community and demographics). Let’s close the entire company for training on unconscious bias (whole: company values).

4. Address dysfunction. Sometimes, a subculture can “go rogue” and become destructive to the overall organization. Researchers refer to this as a counter-culture. When this happens, you have four options:

  • Ignore. Sometimes attention feeds an issue and not acknowledging the noise snuffs it out.
  • Confront. Direct conversation sometimes can cause people to observe and change their behavior.
  • Enlist the crowd. Groups do self-correct, particularly if the overall group is large and generally positive and the toxic subgroup is small.
  • Eradicate. If it’s clear the dysfunction is an insurmountable barrier, firing might be your only option.

5. Engage the subcultures. When you plan a change, enlist your subcultures to design with you, all at once. Your overarching agenda will knit them together, and the solution will be better suited for the subcultures.

After 9/11, the Department of Justice used this approach to plan the rollout of a new computer system. They gathered representatives from more than 50 local sites for a working session to plan logistics, communication and training to introduce the new system. More than 300 people worked at roundtables with flipcharts, answering specific questions about how their office would manage this, followed by reporting out their work. Others in the room modified their initial plans based on the ideas they heard there.

The unifying construct was the agenda. The resulting design was appropriate for each office, and the organization described it as one of the best deployment efforts they’ve seen. Why? Because it was actively considered subculture.

The best managers pay as much attention to what’s happening in the culture as they do to stock prices, customer feedback and product quality.

Your success as a leader depends on your ability to influence behavior. This means connecting with people in a way that makes sense to them and validates their connection to their group and the organization. Your understanding of culture and subculture are your path to that connection.

Tricia Emerson is founder and president of Emerson Human Capital Consulting, the author of three books on leadership and change management and a regular contributor to Forbes. Comment below or email 


Tricia Emerson is founder and president of Emerson Human Capital Consulting, the author of three books on leadership and change management and a regular contributor to Forbes. Comment below or email


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