So the whole world is ablaze right now with conversations around culture. When we use this word, we are usually referring to ethnic culture meaning people who are Black, Latinx, Native American, etc. But this word also refers to cultures that can exist in an organization regardless of the DNA make up of it’s members.
What the funk is a subculture?
Subculture can exist within departments and shows up in the rituals, language, and interactions people in those cultures have. For example, the subculture of the marketing department is likely very different from the finance department. There might even be a sub-subculture in the marketing department between those who use social media for their jobs and those who write copy and content.
Most managers understand the subcultures of their workers largely because they have either been a part of them or have helped shape them. But occasionally there are managers who don’t see the subcultures, either because they are managing so many people, or because they just aren’t super astute at recognizing it.
What happens when you don’t honor a subculture
The biggest problem with misunderstanding or misidentifying subculture is the risk of having your workers feel betrayed or disrespected. We can all think of pop culture examples where someone unwittingly betrayed some sort of cultural protocol. This is usually displayed in the hapless white person misunderstanding something from a more mysterious or ancient culture like those found in Africa, Japan or China, or Polynesian Islands. Someone says or does something offensive and they end up getting chased out by the group they were meeting or on a spit rotating over a fire. (Most of these depictions are rooted in American’s racist views towards these cultures, but that is a conversation for another day and another person.)
But what if the betrayal is more subtle, more innocuous? Or even invisible?
Examples of this can include not honoring how your workers do or don’t work on their lunch breaks, asking for responses to email or projects after typical working hours–even a difference from 5 to 6p, going out to lunch and not being clear about who is paying, or insisting that your workforce use a type of technology they don’t have easy access to, like email, texting, or even picking up a phone to call you.
Some of these examples have swift and clear repercussions. Try asking an hourly worker to do something on their lunch break and you will be breaking a clear protocol around valuing their time and honoring their break.
Some are more subtle. Ask a worker a few too many times to answer a text from you after work hours, and the resentment will start to seep in and run deep.
The challenge with these is you don’t really know which are violations that are death by a thousand cuts and which will prompt someone to start looking for other work immediately.
What you can do to not end up on a spit over a fire
As a manager, the best thing you can do is be a clear observer of unspoken things. For example, does everyone sit in the same place at lunch? Does the calendar of a subgroup have a clear pattern to breaks, days off, and vacation time? Is there a hallmark behavior to a way a group always interacts regardless of stress level?
You can also check in with a worker who has been part of the subgroup for a while and is likely a creator/contributor/influencer of the subculture. If you do that (which is great for a lot of reasons, not least of which is showing your workers you want to listen to them), ask questions like:
How do you know when you and your co-workers are getting along?
What do you do when something goes wrong?
How do you show you like each other?
What’s something that would cause you to be angry with one of them?
You’ll get so much just from those questions about how they interact and what their subculture looks like. Then start to observe them and see examples of how this shows up.
One of my favorite subculture hallmarks is when teasing is the way to show affection. My husband’s crew jokingly says to new interns, “If we’re making fun of you, it means we like you.” This has been true for as long as I’ve known them. They show affection and belonging through teasing and pranks.
So do yourself and your workers a favor and study their subculture. You can find ways to create more belonging, group cohesion, and ways to make work more effective by going with their subculture grain than fighting against it.