Subculture Strife Hinders Productivity

By Caudron, Shari | Personnel Journal, December 1992 | Go to article overview

Subculture Strife Hinders Productivity

Caudron, Shari, Personnel Journal

Management gurus of the 1980s did their best to convince corporate America that corporate culture is a uniform force, a single rudder that guides organizations. They had executives believing that they could change corporate culture simply by assessing the current spirit of their organizations, deciding how that spirit should change and then communicating those changes to their employees.

Enter the pragmatic 1990s. The same consultants now realize that corporate culture isn't a single engine driving the boat; it more closely resembles a collection of oars paddled by employees who have conflicting ideas about the daily course of business. Employees in the finance department, for example--who are concerned about cost containment--spar with researchers who place a high value on costly innovation. Salespeople make promises that the traffic department finds impossible to honor, and managers view their organizations through very different lenses than line workers do.

To be successful at cultural change, business leaders have to acknowledge the values and motivations of all of these distinct employee groups. Executives only just now are beginning to recognize these groups as organizational subcultures.

According to Lisa Gundry, assistant professor of management at DePaul University in Chicago, the most common subcultures are those that are based on function or managerial level. Members of these groups share similar values and expectations, as well as a common work orientation. Subcultures are a valuable part of every business, she says. After all, who doesn't want the accounting department to be cost-conscious, or researchers to be innovative?

Furthermore, subcultures provide a sense of identity to their members, demonstrating to employees that they can succeed as a group. Problems can arise, however, when the values of these subcultures become so divergent that they clash with the company's overall mission.

Take the case of UOP, Inc., based in Des Plaines, Illinois, which was a wholly owned subsidiary of Allied-Signal Inc. until 1987, when an agreement with Union Carbide doubled the company's work force overnight from 1,800 to 3,500 employees. According to Leo Schultz, senior accountant at UOP, the former Union Carbide employees were accustomed to a highly structured operating style that relied heavily on policy and procedure.

By contrast, Allied-Signal promoted an informal style that was strong on innovation and weak on structure. Differences between the two groups surfaced immediately, Schultz explains. "Frequently you'd hear, 'At Union Carbide, we do it this way,' or 'We never do that at Allied-Signal,'" he says. "There was nothing unifying UOP as a company." Conflicts between functional groups compounded the problem.

To unite its employees and forge a company identity that was independent of its corporate owners, UOP launched a TQM training program, in which mixed groups of employees came together to discuss quality improvement. In the process, UOP found that successful unification of subcultures relies on adequate communication.

"We discovered that the main problem had been a lack of communication between employees," Schultz says. "No one had any idea what other groups were up to, so they all assumed that their way was the best way."

To rectify this, the company prepared a document describing UOP's mission and identifying the responsibilities of each employee group. In addition, UOP now actively encourages employees to organize among themselves to solve workplace disputes. By bringing employees together, the company is breaking down the us-versus-them mentality that's typical of corporate subcultures.

CULTURAL CHANGE MUST GROW FROM THE BOTTOM UP. UOP's experience highlights a crucial fact about cultural change: It must take root and grow from the bottom up. Organizations have to acknowledge subcultures--with all their idiosyncrasies--and involve them in the process. …

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