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Distinguishing Countercultures and Subcultures

management, business, organization, corporate culture, corporate subcultures, corporate countercultures

Within any culture—including any organizational culture—a group of people may form a subculture different from the main culture. Certain values, rites, or symbols may be shared between the main culture and this subculture, but the subculture will, by and large, stress different beliefs and patterns of action. When the subculture contradicts the main culture, it is called a counterculture. A counterculture may develop for a variety of reasons. First, a manager may simply be unaware of the prevailing culture and go against it unwittingly. More frequently, however, she goes against the grain of the culture because it is the right thing to do or for such personal reasons as rebelliousness. Let us take it for granted that managers are sufficiently astute and mature that if they attempt to create countercultures, they do so for good reasons. Then one might ask, How can one constructively deviate from the prevailing culture?

In general, going against the culture requires marshaling personal and organizational resources. We might view counterculture activities as falling into three camps. Those who use self-insurance in going against the culture do so on the basis of their credibility and acceptance by the dominant culture. One builds metaphoric credits over time by being compliant with the group's wishes; these credits can be cashed in at a later time through deviant behavior. The more deviance involved in the activity, the more one pays in credibility credits to carry out the attack successfully—and the larger the stock of credits one must have in the first place.

Yet another strategy, called the culture insurance strategy, requires support from others in high places. This strategy spreads the risk of nonconformity among the "old faithful."
In the third approach, managers can deviate from culture with the support of lower-status people, provided they are of sufficient number. The leader creates a subculture whose followers provide the clout needed to deviate from the company culture.

Countercultures can serve some useful functions for the dominant culture, such as bringing into question old values and providing a safe haven for the development of innovative ideas. Some of the core values of the counterculture should present a direct challenge to those of the dominant culture; the two should exist in an uneasy symbiosis, taking opposite and critically important positions. By embracing some deviance, organizations can adapt to environmental changes. In this view, countercultures could be valuable to an organization, rather than threatening.

As in any act of deviance, the prevailing culture may act to stop counterculture activity, initially devoting a great deal of attention to the deviant in an attempt to get him back into the fold. If this does not work, it frequently attempts to wall the deviant off, building a protective wall around the original culture, essentially isolating the deviant by other means.

If countercultures survive, the initial opposition to them may be replaced by a closing of the links between the counterculture and the top of the organization. In this way, the dominant culture attempts to minimize the counterculture's impact on the organization. The counterculture may then respond by attempting to develop other linkages, only to be met with several more rounds of obstruction. Gradually, a successful counterculture may even be granted more resources, autonomy, and legitimacy.
Published: 2007-04-22
Author: Martin Hahn

About the author or the publisher
Martin Hahn PhD has received his education and degrees in Europe in organizational/industrial sociology. He grew up in South-East Asia and moved to Europe to get his tertiary education and gain experience in the fields of scientific research, radio journalism, and management consulting.

After living in Europe for 12 years, he moved to South-East again and has worked for the last 12 years as a management consultant, university lecturer, corporate trainer, and international school administrator

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