Seeing The Big Picture: Finding A Place For Subcultures In Large Enterprises

Time to Read: 6.1 minutes

Updated: May 26, 2023

Company culture is of the utmost importance to every employee and organization. But a good company culture isn’t enough as one in five employees (22%) who rate their culture as good have actively looked for a new job in the past six months, and that number grows to 43% of workers who rate their culture as average.

I know from personal experience with a large, multi-national RPO company that one of the problems facing leaders when examining company culture for retention, productivity, and business analysis is that your culture will be made up of lots of subcultures all contributing to one big culture.

Subcultures exist for a reason and you need to understand yours, distinguish the good from the bad, and find a way for them all to work harmoniously within the larger umbrella of your corporate culture. Once you do, your retention will improve, and attracting great talent to your enterprise will become a smoother process.

What Are Organizational Subcultures?

Subcultures can arise from any group of people within your organization who share similar values, working patterns, perspectives, etc. They can develop from strong teams, across entire departments, offices, or even between different groups of staff based on tenure, seniority, or even new joiners.

Subcultures are a sociological imperative for any group of interacting individuals and are heightened by the shared skill sets, training, and professional experiences of people who work in the same environment in close proximity. For example, your finance department may all share similar professional credentials and training leading to a very process driven, analytics approach to their work, interactions and communications. Whereas your marketing department may communicate more organically via face-to-face interactions that spur creativity and processes may follow a less structured approach. The right business outcomes are still achieved, but in very different ways due to the shared values and approaches of the group.

What Role Does Leadership Play in Culture vs Subculture?

Leadership will naturally have their own subculture built on the foundation of the company’s wider culture but nuanced by greater oversight of company processes and visibility of revenue, profit and loss. One thing to note is that leadership’s subculture, built on their shared experiences and motivators, should be in harmony with the wider organizational culture, not the other way around.

A culture should be influenced by all of the subcultures that contribute to it, not just by those at the top. A great example of this is United Airlines. In March 2018 they restructured their bonus plan and attempted to replace the small quarterly bonus for every employee with a lottery scheme. The lottery structure would have seen only a handful of employees receive a significant amount of money and everyone else would have received none. This did not go over well and management pulled the scheme within a day of announcing it. Its failure is likely due to management’s subculture of performance and prioritization of sales, which did not resonate with the wider workforce’s values.

Are Subcultures Good or Bad for Your Organization?

Subcultures are largely good driving forces for collaboration and productivity within themselves but could lead to differences in attitude, timelines, and processes across your wider workplace if they are not in accordance with your overarching company culture.

In cases where subcultures have formed out of legacy employees from a merger and acquisition or different geographic location, satellite office, etc., it is important to assess their subculture to ensure standards and quality are consistent across your organization and that the overarching values of your main company culture are shared.

How can You Address Differences in Your Subculture vs Your Main Culture?

While subcultures can create an environment of camaraderie and collaboration between teams and groups, they can also have negative impacts and create employee dissatisfaction or an unpleasant work environment. It’s leadership’s role to assess your main culture and your subcultures and address any areas where values are not aligned and where subcultures may have negatively impacted the wider culture.

1. Identify a Baseline for Your Full Organizational Culture

Identify the overarching values that define your main organizational culture. Have a look for any strengths and evidence of positive outcomes because of it. This can also be a good opportunity to assess any less effective elements of your company culture and address those too.

2. Assess what Subcultures Exist

You need to have an accurate understanding of what subcultures are present in your organization. Employee pulse surveys can help you get a feel for recurrent themes and trends that may appear in your various organizational structures and organizational charts can help you visualize how they interact and impact each other.

From there assessing and analyzing whether there are aspects that should be maintained and which should be removed will be vital to ensuring harmony between your subcultures and main culture.

3. Address Negative Aspects of Subcultures

Negative influences should be addressed with workplace education programs and training. The aim is to show subcultures what could be better, not reprimand them. Back this up by addressing any environmental influences, management alienation, or employee factors that may have created the negative aspects of this subculture. It will show your employees that you are truly committed to improving their work experience with your company and that your overarching culture is one of empathy and support.

4. Create a Unified System of Processes that Preserves the Beneficial Aspects of Your Subcultures

Your subcultures have nuanced ways of delivering on your company processes that capitalize on the shared values, skills and experience of that group. However, you need to ensure that they all meet the same standard and quality of outcomes.

There will be aspects of your subcultures that will be hugely beneficial to your wider organizational culture but may not be applicable across the wider workforce. These shouldn’t be removed for the sake of unity, but placed within a wider narrative of your overall culture so that they can be a part of it, without having to be homogenous. Create a system of standard operating procedures to distribute among your full company to ensure that standards are met but you are still able to benefit from those positive aspects and working habits that your subcultures nurtured.

What Results can You Expect from Recognizing Your Subcultures?

When you allow your company culture to be informed by subcultures that arise from the good and the creative in your company, you have an organization that charters its own course. Everything that makes you unique, successful and productive will have arisen organically and be defined by the individuals that make up your collective workforce.

Regulating it for unified processes and ensuring no harmful practices arise will mean your entire workforce is always improving and growing together. The benefits of a culture that’s in harmony with its subcultures will be productive offices, teams and departments, better talent attraction and retention, and longer-lasting staff placements. You can watch your revenue go up while your recruiting costs go down!

Culture needs to be a priority for leadership and understood as an ever-changing, growing entity. You’re never done when it comes to your culture, you will always find ways to better support and resonate with your workforce through your culture. It’s a worthwhile process and understanding your subcultures is just one step in a long journey.

Did you like what you read? Please share!

Alyssa Thach

Alyssa is the Co-Founder and CEO of Pierpoint. She plays a key role in the continued growth and overall business strategy. Her people-first approach builds loyalty, resulting in 94% client retention for Pierpoint. During her 20+ years in recruitment, Alyssa delivered talent solutions that increased revenue growth for Fortune 500 companies worldwide. She is an ambassador for EDI with a passion for helping businesses and people reach their full potential.

Explore More Talent Acquisition Insights

Schedule a consultation with one of our Global RPO Solution experts to connect with the talent you need in the location you want.

Go to Top