The Problems Of Functional And Departmental Sub-Cultures

Functional and departmental subcultures are inevitable. A subculture is born within an organisation when groups of employees with something in common develop a smaller culture amongst themselves.

Although subcultures can be very positive, business leaders should be on the lookout for negative ones. These can be detrimental to the business as a whole. 

Before we touch on the good and the bad, let’s better understand how subcultures develop.

How Do Subcultures Develop And Why?

First off, let's define company culture overall. Company culture is the shared values and behaviours of staff at a company. This may be cultivated by the founders, or it can develop over time. 

Company culture can be seen in how an organisation goes about achieving its goals - not necessarily what those goals are. 

Even if there is a strong company culture, subcultures are bound to form as the business grows. Let’s look at how this happens.


How Does A Subculture Start?

Let’s think about a small company first. The founders of this company expect their employees to behave and interact with each other in a certain way. But what happens when the company starts to grow and hires more employees? 

You will probably find that one function develops its own set of behaviours. For example, the marketing team might bring cookies for each other on ‘Motivational Mondays’ or ring a bell when they achieve an objective. 

These are examples of a budding subculture. The marketing function has taken on its own interpretation of how to approach its work. As a result, they develop a set of behaviours that help motivate their team.  

As time passes and companies grow, the number of staff, customers, and products or services will increase too. When this happens, the heads of the company will find it difficult to manage everything. 

Smaller functions will then arise to boost efficiency. They form units with their own leadership within the larger company, thereby starting their own subcultures. 

Keeping that in mind, here are a few examples of how subcultures are formed:

  • Geographical differences: For example, branches at different locations might form their own subcultures independently of each other. 
  • Functional Differentiation: As mentioned above, different departments could develop their own subcultures. 
  • Hierarchy: Different roles within the company could also form their own subcultures. For example, the top management might have their own subculture, while the middle management have another. 

The next question to consider is how these subcultures impact business and the employee experience. 


Are These Subcultures Good or Bad For Your Organisation?

Some business leaders might flinch at the word ‘subculture’ and assume that they are negative and work against how the company operates. This is not necessarily the case. 

Below, we will look at how subcultures can be beneficial to a company and when they might turn into countercultures.


Why Are Subcultures Good For An Organisation?

Subcultures can be very beneficial to a business in the sense that they improve organisational agility. This is because they often have different responses to challenges within a business. They add to a dynamic, flexible environment that is integral to organisational agility

In addition, positive subcultures can strengthen an organisation’s core culture. A positive subculture benefits internal coherence, rather than working against the company culture. It co-exists with the dominant culture and promotes cohesion and a sense of belonging. 

Another way subcultures benefit the overall company is by promoting good relationships with peers. Subcultures provide a space for employees to form relationships with one another. As such, they can make employees feel included and valued. 

However, when a subculture becomes  problematic is when it grows into a counterculture. As a business leader, this is what you should be on the lookout for.


When Do They Get Problematic?

A negative subculture could arise from multiple situations such as feeling undervalued, being underpaid, or being dissatisfied with the company in general. Other problematic subcultures could be born from feelings of superiority to others at the company. Sexism or bigotry are two good examples. 

Problematic subcultures might start off as light office gossip, but it could grow into an ‘us versus them’ mentality. This may not be outright evident. Employees may still pretend to agree with the values of the company. However, the actions of those in the subculture will work to the detriment of the company when their boss is out of earshot. 

If a problematic subculture has taken root, leaders of these structures may end up in conflict with each other or other members of staff over strategy or resources. This can disrupt  the company.


How To Prevent and Solve "Bad" Subcultures

To prevent problematic subcultures, business leaders need to act as strong mediators and challenge the nature of the subcultures effectively . 

If a problematic subculture conflicts with another subculture in the organisation (possibly preventing cross-team collaboration), they need to be reminded of the bigger picture. All individuals and subcultures must understand the overarching company vision and goals and how they all contribute to these goals. 

This is not to say there won’t be any conflict. But understanding that different groups have different processes is integral. 

It’s also important for leaders to acknowledge the subcultures in the company. They need to understand that different functions in the business may benefit from a subculture that serves them well. As such, they can help facilitate positive subcultures. 

Lastly, business leaders should look out for signs of dysfunction. This entails watching out for signs of conflict, disruption, or a pattern of subpar performance. If you spot these indicators, then changing teams or managers could make a huge difference in stopping negative subcultures from taking root.


Final Thoughts

As the business grows, it is inevitable that subcultures will form. These are not necessarily bad. In fact, they can work to improve organisational agility and promote a sense of belonging. 

Unless these subcultures threaten to undermine the dominant culture or business operations, business leaders should work to accommodate them. Keep an eye out for signs of problematic subcultures and work to discontinue them while encouraging and facilitating positive subcultures.


If your organisation is looking for a tool to involve all employees in idea generation for better decision-making on workplace and business strategies, have a look at the Falcony Platform. It enables your staff to participate in creating clarity on non-conformities, give feedback, ideas and input for the business, as well as preventing and decreasing the amount of friction in cross-team communications, negative sub-cultures from forming and gather actionable data in the process.


We are building the world's first operational involvement platform. Our mission is to make the process of finding, sharing, fixing and learning from issues and observations as easy as thinking about them and as rewarding as being remembered for them.‍

By doing this, we are making work more meaningful for all parties involved.

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