‘One company, one culture’ is a myth

Establishing a single uniform culture across an organisation, which comprises people from diverse backgrounds and traits, is next to impossible

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Many organisation boast about having ‘one company one culture’. Big conglomerates with diverse businesses have often said that even if they have diverse businesses, their culture remains the same. However, that is not really true. Within a big workforce, there co-exist various other subcultures in the company. Just as there are different departments, professionals, geographies and roles, there will also co-existing subcultures which are common across teams, departments and locations.

Many HR leaders that HRKatha spoke with, are of the opinion that in all big organisations, irrespective of the field or domain they operate in, there can never be any single culture followed by all departments. “Having a uniform culture across the organisation is a state that every company desires to achieve, and requires undertaking a tough journey. However, it is something that no company may have accomplished till date. Having worked with so many big conglomerates, I have always seen different subcultures co-existing in companies,” shares Nihar Ghosh, president – HR, Emami.

As we are aware, people come with diverse backgrounds in terms of education, regions, states, language and ethnicity. Therefore, it is next to impossible for any organisation to have a uniform culture within.

“Having a uniform culture across the organisation is a state that every company desires to achieve, and requires undertaking a tough journey”

Nihar Ghosh, president – HR, Emami

It is not just the diversity of the workforce which creates subcultures in the company, but the so many different leaders within the company who have their own way of leading businesses and teams. So, as many leaders, as many cultures. “It is the leaders who demonstrate certain behaviours in the company, certain ways of working and functioning, which cascade down to all other employees,” shares Milind Apte, SVP-HR, CEAT.

What is culture? Culture is not something that is seen, but something that is experienced. It is visible in the way one conducts oneself at work and does business. While everyone is aligned to that one goal, each one will achieve it in their own way. Apte cites an example of how at one manufacturing unit, which has three different operations teams working, there can exist three different subcultures.

But what if these different subcultures start conflicting with each other? Well, if subcultures exist, there is bound to be some conflict. “In every company, there is one primary or dominant culture, which will comprise behaviours common to all, and which will drive the success of the business. The leaders in the company will have to constantly demonstrate and encourage such uniform behaviour so that the subcultures do not start dominating the primary culture of the firm,” tells Apte.

As Manu Wadhwa, CHRO, Sony Pictures explains, in a large organisation there you will bound to have different subculture and they coexist with harmony till the time it does not contradict with the larger or primary culture of the company. Let’s say the company has a culture of meritocracy and in one corner of the organisations there is a leader who is leading the team on a patriarchy culture which will definitely start conflicting. In that case strong mentoring and coaching is required to rectify the issue.

“In every company, there is one primary or dominant culture, which will comprise behaviours common to all, and which will drive the success of the business. The leaders in the company will have to constantly demonstrate and encourage such uniform behaviour so that the subcultures do not start dominating the primary culture of the firm” 

Milind Apte, SVP – HR, CEAT

“I think if everyone is aligned with a larger purpose of the company goals these small cultural differences will not hinder or create any problems,” explains Wadhwa.
The perfect example of this can be seen in armed forces, every battalion will have a different motto, but when required they work together for the same purpose.

Apart from this, it is also vital to understand the existence of subcultures in the company. For instance, in 2018, United Airlines rolled out a new system to reward and recognise its people. It replaced small, quarterly bonuses with a lottery system, which handsomely paid a handful of employees. However, this was not really appreciated by the employees and the Company had to withdraw this programme within a day of its announcement. Here the leadership failed to understand the subculture which existing within their employees which believed that everyone or a large part of the population who has demonstrated exceptional work should get something as a reward rather than a handful of people getting rewarded overwhelmingly. That means, it would be correct to say that identifying the subcultures in an organisation is a must, and so is engaging with them.

After 9/11, the Department of Justice in the US wanted to roll out a new computer system. It gathered representatives from more than 50 local sites to plan the logistics, communication and training procedure for it. 300 people from different offices worked on flipcharts answering questions on how they will carry out the process and what responsibilities they will handle at their offices. Others modified their initial plans, as per these responses. The resulting design was appropriate for each office and the organisation claims this to be the best of its deployment efforts, because subcultures were recognised and considered.

“If everyone is aligned with a larger purpose of the company goals these small cultural differences will not hinder or create any problems”

Manu Wadhwa, CHRO, Sony Pictures Network

According to HR leaders, subcultures will not clash with the overall culture of the company, provided they are not changed. Conflict only occurs when a new leader emerges and starts working against the dominating culture of the company, which actually creates a mess. People are often misunderstood amidst their attempt to align themselves to the primary culture of the company.

According to Ghosh, hiring is the key to maintaining balance. “Every company needs to give time to culture-fit hiring. One will not get a 100 per cent culture-fit person, but even if it is a 60 or 70 per cent match, it is good enough,” says Ghosh. According to him, there are interventions, such as coaching, mentoring and the buddy system, which help the new joinees to become aware of how things are carried out at the workplace.

While it is almost close to impossible to achieve a single uniform company culture, it is a long journey and companies can strive to undertake it and get there!

2 COMMENTS

  1. Our research shows Organisational Culture as complex as it is, is multi-dimensional. While certain aspects of Culture in an organisation must be common to form the ‘glue’ of a ‘strong’ culture, it also must allow for functional diversity leading to ‘Sub-cultures’ within Culture. For example, in a bid to build a culture of innovation across the whole organisation, you may not encourage your control functions to get as creative as your R&D one. Therefore, subcultures are inevitable because work realities across functions in an organisation are varied.

  2. I was associated with this tyre company during 1998-2002 as Manager- TQM, TRAINING & MR. Its Bhandup Plant and Nasik Plant has different work cultures. Nasik that time had first generation workmen, who were little unaware of Industrial set up and essentially were more vocal, militant. Although Union was same at both locations, the local leaders differed in their approaches and dealing with Management. The HO at Worli was having diagonally opposite culture compared to both plants. They assumed themselves to be one step above. Nasik Team used to openly opposed ” Big Brother Syndrome” of Bhandup Plant. Even Managers used to be reluctant for inter plant transfers.

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