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Toxic Subcultures

The latest article by Rands, “A Toxic Paradox” struck a cord with me.  It describes three basic types of personalities/relationships in the office: those that are natural, those that require work, and those that are toxic.

When asked a simple question, a toxic person would burst out:

THIS ISN’T A SMALL CHANGE. YOU HAVEN’T THOUGHT THIS THROUGH. WHY WASN’T I CONSULTED EARLIER? HOW COULD WE CONSIDER THIS GIVEN WHAT I SAID 14 MONTHS AGO ON THIS VERY TOPIC WHEN I WAS IGNORED…

You just have to scroll down to the comments to see that this resonates with a lot of people.  But not managers. People who believe they are or have been the toxic offender.  People who thought they fit the culture of an organization, started out great, then went sour and burst out with similar statements.

This reminded me of a tricky thing about organizations that I’ve experienced: subcultures.  Often times the subcultures appear between business units.  You could find yourself in a group of creative, novelty t-shirt wearing, environmentally conscious people who share the same ideals.  Yet 70% of your time is devoted to dealing directly with the members of another business unit and their distinct subculture.  Your group really values going out for Friday lunch and relaxing after working hard all week, yet the other group periodically schedules meetings around noon on Fridays.  The other group frowns upon your novelty t-shirts as inappropriate office attire and you scoff at their sweater vests.  They love their gas guzzling SUV and you love the cycle home from work.

It can be difficult for members of these groups to spend 70% of their time interacting with one another and in such situations it is a good idea to put a distance between them.  Maybe appoint a liaison from each group, someone who is responsible for communication between the two groups and funneling all communication through them.  Putting a physical distance between the groups may help as well.

When looking at an organization from the outside, it can be very difficult to spot subcultures as well.  You could accept a job offer at company that you believe aligns with a majority of your ideals, only to end up in a group that doesn’t.  It is most important to know the people who you will be dealing with daily and focus on them. Interview them, Google them, do to what it takes to find out what culture they belong to.  Don’t assume you know the people because you know the company.