Why cultural diversity at work matters

You need to nurture your subcultures to succeed, argues consultant Graham Scrivener.

by Graham Scrivener
Last Updated: 20 Dec 2017
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Down to business

Businesses tend to encourage conformity and standardisation through hierarchies that formalise functions and separate them strategically. In addition, they often try to define and develop a single, uniting culture that links to the strategy of the business.  But a large, complex organisation is made up of a multitude of subcultures that in successful cases share common beliefs and values as well as providing much needed variety.

Why subcultures matter

Organisations that have a robust culture and focus on developing and supporting it will perform strongly. But in a rapidly changing world, to be a great performer rather than just a good one, a business needs to understand and support its subcultures too.

Even within a rigid hierarchy, subcultures can develop and play an important role. For example, sales, finance and IT teams may have very different cultures, at least partly influenced by the nature of the work, which are supported formally and informally within the organisation and which are seen as making a positive contribution to its success.  

Many other factors can influence the formation of subcultures, including nationality, ethnicity, gender, non-work interest, or just the convenience of desk locations.

Subcultures can bring a range of different voices, ideas, and approaches to everyday work tasks. For example, imagine a café chain which recruits staff for its branches from the local population. That chain might chose to impose strict rules of front of house behaviour, which don’t chime with the cultural expectations of the local population. Or it might encourage the chain to do what works best in the local environment. The second approach might well be more likely to create repeat local customers, and a thriving business.

In a large organisation there will be numerous subcultures. When an organisation listens to the broad range of voices and opinions that subcultures contribute, it is able to make better decisions. For example bringing subcultures from the IT and sales teams together will likely create more diverse and innovative ideas than these teams could do separately.

The key challenge is finding ways to empower subcultures.

The role of leadership

Senior leaders understand the value and impact organisational culture has on performance, but their position makes it difficult for them to fully harness the value subcultures bring. Mid-level leaders are much better placed to do this, as they see what’s happening on the ground day to day.

But mid-level leaders are often under considerable pressure. They have the task of translating strategy into action on the ground, to deliver the results that senior leaders want, while also having to deal with regular operation issues such as staffing, planning, budgeting and problem solving. By giving mid-level leaders the tools they need to support subcultures, they can help the organisation’s ‘diverse many’ be heard. This creates a culture of cooperation and loyalty.

Achieving all this might not be easy. Nurturing subcultures can be complex and time-consuming, and mid-level managers will need their own support to help ensure subcultures don’t develop in ways that are negative for the organisation. But it is worth repeating that an organisation can’t truly thrive without nurturing its subcultures. To see this in action look no further than retail firms, which often place great focus on supporting mid-level leadership.

Practical steps

For organisations that don’t currently engage workplace subcultures, getting to grips with the task might seem daunting. But there are some guiding principles which can help:

-          Build mid-level leadership so that it is able to find, nurture, develop and empower subcultures

-          Be constantly and consistently open to the diversity of opinion that exists

-          Always look to build the value of many voices

-          Communicate and celebrate the diversity of subcultures in a way that links them to the corporate culture

It is a fact that subcultures exist in organisations. Attempts to stifle them can create negativity and push subcultures underground. But by nurturing them, and recognising the value of many voices, an organisation can become great rather than just good, can thrive rather than just survive.

Graham Scrivener is managing director, Europe, Kotter. 

Image credit: Pixabay


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