How to Identify and Avoid Bad Corporate Subcultures

Bad Corporate Subcultures confuse and disrupt

Bad Corporate Subcultures are Unaligned
Even companies with high performing organizational cultures have to recognize that corporate subcultures are not necessarily uncommon or bad.  We define bad corporate subcultures as ones that are misaligned with the company’s strategy or that undermine the company’s core values.

Why Corporate Subcultures Exist
When a company or team is small, corporate subcultures tend to be rare because everyone is working closely together to achieve a clear and common objective.  Corporate subcultures typically start when companies and teams grow and either consciously or subconsciously develop their own distinctive behaviors, values, and norms to meet their specific objectives that differ in some significant way from the overall corporate culture.

Can Corporate Subcultures Create Problems?
It can be difficult for leaders to accept that there is not an absolutely uniform workplace culture within their organization.  But they should recognize that, within bounds, corporate subcultures allow groups to have a distinctive identity that can create a sense of belonging that supports the organization as a whole.  However, if a corporate subculture comes into conflict with your strategic priorities or the desired culture where their values are at odds, yes, bad subcultures can be very problematic.

An Example of Healthy Corporate Subcultures
One of our high tech clients is laser-focused on being the market leader in their space with new products and services that are continuously beyond what exists today.  Accordingly, their go-to-market strategy and overall corporate culture are based on innovation, pushing the envelope, making big bets, testing alternatives, embracing risk and learning from mistakes.  But a portion of their operations team is purposefully misaligned from a cultural perspective by having an explicit culture of planning, education, prevention and safety.

The same is true of their finance and HR departments in terms of respecting specific rules and regulations.  While both departments can innovate in some areas, it is in the organization’s best interests that certain corporate subcultures exist and are purposefully misaligned.

Us Versus Them
The danger of a conflict between the overall organizational culture and bad corporate subcultures that inhibit the strategic direction or undermines the company values is that it creates an “Us vs. Them” mentality.  This is an unhealthy situation for all.

How to Avoid Bad Corporate Subcultures that Sabotages Success

  • Acknowledge the Subcultures that Exist
    As a leader, recognize that some functions within your organization are better served with a subculture that respects the majority culture but behaves in a nuanced way that fits their role.
  • Beware of Dysfunction
    Be alert for signs that a subculture is being disruptive or confrontational. If you notice increasing conflict or a pattern of poor performance, investigate the cause.
  • Change the Dynamic
    Don’t allow a toxic climate to continue. There are lots of ways to change the dynamic, from changing managers to juggling teams, but do not let a bad corporate subculture fester.

The Bottom Line
Corporate subcultures exist in organizations.  Great leaders understand this and accommodate them unless they somehow impede the strategy or threaten the overall cultural health of the company.

To learn more about how to align your culture with your go-to-market strategy and corporate values, download The 3 Levels of a High Performance Culture

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