Is It Okay for Subgroups to Have Different Cultures?

September 9, 2022
September 9, 2022 Jamie Notter

This is one of the most common questions I get about culture. When you are doing the work of intentionally designing a culture that drives success, it feels like a problem if some teams stray from the culture you’re creating, even if the difference is slight. This is definitely something you should be tracking and managing, so here is some advice.

First, it is okay for you to have subcultures, simply because different teams will have different drivers of what makes them successful. My classic example is your accounting/bookkeeping team compared to your marketing/creative team. Marketing’s culture is probably going to value creativity, innovation, and trying new things—but that’s NOT what your accounting team should have at the heart of their culture (hey, this month let’s have the debits NOT equal the credits and see what happens!). I’m not suggesting there is zero room for innovation in accounting, but I am saying that you are likely going to see a slightly different culture in those two groups—and that’s fine. That’s what makes them successful

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That said, you also need to clear about the “non-negotiable” aspects of your culture. Ten years ago, Zappos got famous for its culture that obsessed over customer service. That was so non-negotiable for them that ALL new hires had to do 2 weeks of customer service training, and spend 2 weeks fielding customer calls. EVERYONE had to do this. If they hired a high-powered corporate attorney, that person would still have to do 2 weeks on the phone. I once joked on a webinar that I’d be bummed to call Zappos customer service and get the lawyer, but someone from Zappos was in the audience and in the Q&A she literally assured me it would fine, because they only hire lawyers that are good at customer service.

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So don’t worry if subgroups have slightly different cultures inside your organization, but make sure the differences are connected to what makes each team successful and don’t let them stray too far away from the most important elements of your culture.

By the way, our culture assessment provides nuanced breakdowns by department, level, and location, so it can help you spot the differences before they become too big.

Jamie Notter

Jamie is a co-founder and culture strategist at PROPEL, where he helps leaders create amazing workplace cultures that drive greater performance and impact. He brings thirty years of experience to his work designing and managing culture, and has specialized along the way in areas like conflict resolution and generations. Jamie is the co-author of four popular business books, including the award-winning Non-Obvious Guide to Employee Engagement, and his fall 2023 release, Culture Change Made Easy. He holds a Master’s in conflict resolution from George Mason and a certificate in Organization Development from Georgetown, where he serves as adjunct faculty.