Management subcultures: When managers infiltrate their own company

What it’s all about

A management topic that has received little attention in management so far, but has a major impact on long-term corporate success, is the formation of management subcultures. A dangerous omission.

The invisible enemy

Subcultures are company divisions, departments or groups of employees that conform within their own companies and ostensibly commit to the company’s goals, but at the same time work separately according to their own rules. They are hardly recognisable, act extremely skilfully and certainly make a contribution to the company’s performance, but also harm it to the same extent.

Causes of subculture formation

The reasons for their formation can be systematised into three categories:

  • Communication deficits of the management

If managers feel badly or wrongly informed by the company management in the long run, there is a risk of disengagement. This is particularly great in the case of company takeovers.

  • Goals that are set too high and cannot be achieved

Unrealistic goals inevitably lead to defiant counter-reactions, primarily among those who have pointed out the lack of realism by means of facts and evidence in the run-up to setting the goals.

  • Dissatisfaction and disappointment

Continued demotivation leads to a covert resistance to the demotivators and managers create their own sense of achievement.

Involvement of employees

The initiators of such subcultures usually have no great problems getting their employees on their side. They form a „conspiratorial community“ with them, which develops its own procedural and communication routines, sometimes even its own goals, which are later transferred into the „official goals“. Subculture managers know how to give their staff the feeling of being an „elite in disguise“. This is why they are often much more popular than other managers and also more respected, as they are admired for their courage to take a „different path“.

Advantages and disadvantages for a company

Management subcultures have positive and negative effects for a company. They can lead to above-average divisional performance, especially if the subculture strategy is better than the corporate strategy intended for the division.

However, they can also – and this is the more frequent case – endanger a company, for example if an area manager in sales rewrites predefined sales concepts and positions products or services differently than predefined. This approach can lead to excellent regional market results, but counteract brand building in the long term.

The decisive danger lies in the transfer of the tendency towards independence, which in extreme cases enables a comprehensive erosion of the company’s internal relationship. This is because subculture managers talk about their approaches with confidants from other areas or departments and can thus initiate a „subculture infection“ that progresses slowly but steadily. The result is the disengagement of an increasing number of employees from the ideal and real core of the company.

Subculture and internal dismissal

The astonishing thing about subculture managers is that they usually have not yet resigned internally. This makes it difficult to recognise such processes at an early stage, combined with the opportunity to prevent a subculture from forming. However, board members, managing directors and division/department heads pay far too little attention to such developments. If the goals are achieved, order prevails for them.

However, one should be alert when statements such as: „We’ll do it our way“ or: „We’ll deal with the problem individually. However, rather than waiting, it is better to conduct regular analysis interviews with a „subculture check“ in order to

  • check the employees‘ closeness to the company,
  • to determine loyalty to the supervisor,
  • to ascertain the work status through project discussions. The more concretely the projects are described, the less pronounced the danger of subculture formation.