Watch Out! Your Subcultures are Showing

Company G’s Official & Unofficial Guidon (Courtesy of 2d Battalion, 4th Marines, official Facebook page)

Are you struggling to get the whole organization to head in the same direction?

The latest “Joker” movie is much in the news these days, it’s performing well at the box office. It’s such a compelling title, it grabs people’s attention, including mine. Every time I hear it I think about another Joker I met a few years ago.

Legend has it Company G, 2d Battalion, 4th Marines, adopted the radio call sign Joker when they were deployed to Ramadi in 2004 because their company commander’s laugh sounded just like the laugh made famous by the movie character. Life imitating art, I guess. When I took command of the battalion in July 2010, the company still proudly used the call sign, it had become part of their collective identity.

Initially, I thought this call sign was interesting but didn’t give it much thought. That initial lack of thought changed dramatically, as we trained intensely and then deployed to Afghanistan from August 2011 to March 2012. Early in our training Joker taught me a lot about the power of subcultures.

Joker highlighted for me the importance of the Gunfighter’s Rule: See things for what they are. The strength with which the Marines in Company G identified with the Joker label was intense, and even as a newcomer I could feel that intensity. They had an identity that was a subset of the battalion’s overall identity. This wasn’t a value judgment, it was simply a fact. Once Joker taught me they operated every day within their own subculture, I looked around the rest of the battalion and started to see all the other subcultures that existed. They were literally everywhere.

Joker also provided me a powerful exemplar of the differences between espoused theory and theory-in-use. Espoused theory is what people say animates their actions, like when they point to written vision statements or written core values. Theory-in-use is what actually shapes their decisions and actions, like when you hear someone say, “this is the way we’ve always done it.” Formally, the Marines in that company were members of Company G. Informally, they saw themselves as Joker. That informal perspective was their theory-in-use, their identity as a Joker Marine was the identity that guided the choices they made.

Again, this wasn’t a value judgment, it was more like an observation of a natural phenomenon. It’s power for me as a leader was its revelation that subcultures exist and I would be more effective if I learned to take them into account.

Joker’s strong identity living within the larger battalion organization opened my eyes to the other subcultures all around me. It turned out the other companies had equally strong subcultures, even if they lacked the branding that came with the “Joker” label. And there were subcultures within each company and so on down the line. Like Russian dolls, these subunits nested inside each other.

Once I understood these subcultures, I learned how to account for them as a leader. When we deployed, I knew we would spread across a huge operating area. It would be impossible for me to supervise these smaller groups directly. I needed to figure out a way to get us all headed in the same direction, even if we went weeks between seeing each other in person.

For me, it came down to treating each subculture almost as if it were a separate person.

First, I had to “see” each group, and recognize it as distinct and with its own theory-in-use, with its own identity and ways of doing things. Then I had to tailor the overall battalion message to this group and make sure it was understood. This required a kind of active listening. Like I was dealing with a person, I needed to keep asking each group questions until I knew I had gotten the right message across.

A tiny fraction of the subcultures resisted the message. In these cases, it was my duty to make changes within their group to get the type of alignment we needed. The stakes were simply too high to allow for anything else. Usually, a change in leadership led to better alignment. In one case, more significant structural and manpower changes were needed, that particular subculture’s identity was too strong to redirect with less drastic changes.

Ultimately, accounting for subcultures made a real difference. We met with success on our deployment even though we were highly distributed. I’ve often said part of our success was because we assigned the companies their operating areas based on their personalities. To me, that is saying we matched their mission to their culture.

These experiences clearly taught me a lot about organizational culture. As a leadership coach now, I continue to research the topic so that I can diagnose it for my clients with precision. This research has deepened my understanding of organizational culture and increased the vocabulary I have available to describe it.

Senior leaders sometimes see only a macro view of their organization’s culture and believe that all’s well. Joker taught me to see the subcultures all around us. We assume these subcultures are aligned with the larger organization at our peril. As author and mentor Nick Petrie notes, culture is like a bungee cord. If leaders don’t bring the culture along with them, it will pull them back.

When considering how culture operates within an organization, here are a few things for leaders to consider:

1. People normally identify with the closest group first, their identity attenuates as the groupings grow larger. If the identity at the lowest level is not aligned with the organization’s, watch out.

2. Understanding leads to alignment. It’s not about trying to break down the subcultures (with very few exceptions). It’s about leaders making sure each subcultures’ purpose and values are in rhythm with those of the larger organization. To do that, leaders need to first see the subcultures operating all around us.

3. Understanding “culture” is minor league leadership material, especially in large organizations. Recognizing – and being able to influence – subcultures vaults leaders to the big leagues.

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