Our NHS People

Subcultures and microcultures

You’ll notice that we started the unit by thinking about the whole organisation’s culture. Trying to change anything at that level might look daunting – and indeed it is very difficult for any one person to change the culture of a whole organisation.

So let’s consider another level of culture – a sub-culture. A subculture is a culture within the organisation’s (overall or dominant) culture. The dominant culture gives staff boundaries and guidelines that shape their behaviour – but most organisations also have a number of subcultures that include the core values/assumptions of the dominant culture – and additional values/ assumptions which are unique to the subculture.

Subcultures form when a group have a shared situation or experience that is unique to them. Common subcultures are around professions, or departments, or geographical sites – amongst others. For example, a specialised child development clinic is likely to have its own sub-culture – and ways of doing things – whilst also being part of a larger community partnership Trust, and the dominant culture of the Trust. Or you could say that audiologists may have their own sub-culture, and shared beliefs, whilst still operating within the dominant culture. It’s useful to acknowledge and recognise these because they help explain the challenges of trying to bring about changes in culture.

Let’s break this down one more level – to micro-culture. A micro-culture could be your team. Even if there are just 4 of you – you’ll have your own understanding of how you work together, what’s acceptable and what’s not – and how things get done in your team. And all the time, you are operating within the dominant organisational culture. And it’s at this level, where you can make a difference, most easily.

And a final word to just one more term – climate. Climate is different from culture. Climate is specifically how it ‘feels’ to work here – and you, as a leader of a team, have an enormous amount of influence as to how it feels to work in your team. We know that a positive team climate has a positive impact on the productivity of any team. Be aware that sometimes people think they’re changing the culture in a team when actually they’re changing the climate.

Climate is short term and can change more easily with leadership involvement or other interventions. Culture is more stable over time than climate, takes more interventions to shift, and is less to do with emotional engagement at work and more to do with unconscious assumptions and values and practices of workforces. If culture were the ‘character’ of an organisation, department or team, then climate would be its mood.

When you consider that the dominant culture, numerous sub-cultures and maybe hundreds of micro-cultures are all running alongside, and threaded through each other, it’s not surprising that people find it difficult to explain what it is, and find it so challenging to change.