by Jo Geraghty and Derek Bishop

Identifying and managing subcultures

No matter whether your organisation is firmly based in a single building or spans several continents, there are inevitably going to be some internal cultural divergences. When people from different cultures, backgrounds and age ranges come together, outlooks and attitudes will never be identical.

Nor should they be. As with diversity, subcultures can be leveraged to create immense strength and flexibility within the organisation. And the existence of subcultures need not mean that the organisational culture is any less strong. So the challenge for leaders is to set a core vision and strategy for the organisation and then to identify the parameters under which differing subcultures can operate. This can be one of the toughest, and yet most rewarding, lessons that any leader has to face.

The vast majority of management training is based on workflow and people management within the home country. So, when learning how to handle certain situations, the responses are based in the common ground of a shared educational and cultural background. When coping with a multi-country situation, employees no longer inhabit that common ground, hence the potential for misunderstanding.

For example, providing customer excellence may be a core value, but customers in different countries may have differing ideas of what constitutes excellence. So while one division may concentrate on excellence through efficiency and timeliness, another may prioritise personalisation.

Cultural traits can also be leveraged to optimise project planning or service delivery. For example, does your project need strict protocols allied to a minute attention to detail or does it need people who are prepared to try lots of ‘stuff’ before hitting on the right combination? Are you looking for people who will follow laid-down processes without deviation or would you prefer employees to step outside process to provide exceptional service?

The importance when coping with cross-cultural challenges is to concentrate on the positive cultural influences which can strengthen an organisation. So, for example, Winston Churchill once said of the Americans that ‘you could always count on them to do the right thing, after they’ve tried everything else.’ Far from being a negative aspect, it is this thirst for action, for doing something now, which can be turned to a business’s advantage when there’s a need to innovate or to drive a project forward.

However, this American need for instant action is one which does not sit comfortably with those in the UK who have been brought up on a diet of caution, of checking results and getting things right before proceeding. Put the two together in a way which will maximise their strengths and you have a project which will swiftly develop, but which will also have a strong basis in delivering a solid result.

Whatever the challenge, understanding the subcultures in play within the organisation helps leaders to optimise results and deliver a successful strategy.