Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Avoiding Subculture Collisions on the Organization Superhighway

A key theme from my evening with Edgar Schein has continued to provoke my pondering: managing the interactions of subcultures across organizations.

Beyond the overarching culture of an organization, groups of individuals are further influenced by the presence of subcultures. These might be ethnic cultures in a global organization or perhaps cultures of differing business units, e.g. sales and engineering. The main challenge for organizations today is not merely designing and sustaining a company-wide culture but effectively managing the interaction of disparate subcultures.  When cultures collide, cohesion, performance and strategy execution are at risk.

I believe that the same principles for fostering effective communication across ethnic cultures can help us mitigate the consequences of subculture collisions. Reflecting on Schein’s insights, I’m offering five steps toward effectively working across subcultures in your organization.

1. Initiate Inquiry
In Schein’s terms, take an approach of “humble inquiry”. Embody a curious spirit – ask questions while refraining from judgment. Questions like “Why?”, “When you say ___, what exactly do you mean?” or “What are you trying to achieve?” can illuminate the intention behind your counterpart’s actions.

2. Uncover Assumptions
As insight on the motivations and assumptions of others grows, turn the questions back on yourself. Identify and examine the assumptions you are bringing to the conversation.  What goals, factors, values and objectives are you taking for granted? How do you see the world differently than those in other sub-cultures?

3. Explicate Meaning
Statements such as “customer satisfaction is the top priority” can mean one thing to an engineer and something entirely different to someone in sales. This is often the source of much tension -- individuals mistakenly think they are in agreement when they're expressing two different ideas. Thus, get as granular and descriptive as possible in expressing your meaning and perspective to ensure shared understanding.

4. Exhibit Empathy
As assumptions surface, put yourself in your colleagues' shoes and strive to think from their perspectives. What are the forces at work in their subcultures? How might those forces influence behavior, motivation and goals? How might actions be interpreted differently through that cultural lens? Rather than jump to conclusions, examine the situation from other perspectives to foster effective communication.

5. Unify Visions
Once questions are asked, assumptions have surfaced, meanings have been confirmed and differing perspectives have been considered, it's time to aim for agreement. Articulate goals and values upon which you can agree -- and ensure the language used in your shared vision is descriptive and mutually understood.

Perhaps the best company-wide culture an organization can create is one that allows for those competencies to rise up. In cultures where inquiry and empathy are valued, the consequences of subculture collision can be minimized.


  1. Hi, Heather! Just started reading your blog! I find this post really interesting, primarily because it is as useful on the individual scale as it is on the group scale. In fact, it precisely lays out what I do on a day-to-day basis working with people in technical support, and is the hardest thing to train new support staff on. Pulling apart the loaded words and phrases people use to communicate with to get to true understanding of the ideas they're trying to communicate is seriously the hardest part of what we do. We have to translate "The program is broken" into "I didn't understand how to use this input because it didn't match my expectations and didn't see this particular result on this particular page," and what you describe is pretty much exactly how we get there.(We work with financial planners, so basically the jargon and world-view they pick up from schooling (both chronologically and geographically) varies incredibly.)

  2. Hi Carol,

    Appreciate the kind words! You're spot on. This is definitely a skill critical to many job functions and relevant at all levels - individual, group and organizational. Glad you found value in the post and hope it spurs some ideas for getting you through the day.



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