Alt-culture (some call it "anti-culture") is an organization's underground, authentic culture. Different from the officially communicated (internally and externally) one. What are its key characteristics?

  • it consists of regular/consistent actions, behavioral patterns, values (used in everyday decision making) of the majority of the organization's members - empirically observed, not assumed, or wished for
  • it's the one that no one openly speaks about (or even officially recognizes)
  • typically it forks of the "official" culture, but from then on, it develops independently, in parallel
  • there may be more than one alt-culture, e.g., alt-cultures developed within heavily siloed functional org units or geo units (especially ones with strong, but pathological leaders)

Examples of alt-cultures? Here you are. The organization ...

  1. ... declares commitment to the highest engineering standards, but all that ever matters is to meet the deadline (even if that means lower quality of work).
  2. ... has diversity, equity, and inclusion on its banners, but having your own opinion is a big no-no, all have to adhere to one, official ways of thinking.
  3. ... puts experimentation and innovation at the very first place, but all of it happens in the R&D team - 3 people, out of a total of 300.
  4. ... is papered with declarations of how important transparency and openness is, but no one ever raises concerns, doubts, or issues - out of fear of consequences.

When (and why) are the alt-cultures born?

  1. poor leadership (at some stage) - focused only on metrics/results, not on organizational development or developing new leaders
  2. the "original" culture was never there - it was invented in some person's (people's) mind but never turned into a real thing (aka "wishful thinking")
  3. there are no control/transparency mechanisms for culture's health (or the existing ones are ineffective) - so if a new hire develops her/his team on a different foundation, no one even knows
  4. it's common (in that particular org) to undervalue the meaning of culture - people keep hearing mantras about values and principles but ignore them (as an element of decoration or some boring HR stuff)
  5. people don't think it's their responsibility to care for the culture and react if someone acts against it ("No single raindrop believes it is to blame for the flood." - Naomi Stanford)

Here's how I'd rate organizations when it comes to alt-culture awareness (starting with the ones I consider the better places to work):

  1. (culture-focused) ... has no alt-culture (even if it means that culture is flawed), has a continuous feedback loop for culture cultivation.
  2. (culture-aware) ... has already developed some form of alt-culture, mainly due to slow, gradual culture entropy - some do call it a "cultural debt".
  3. (culture-ignorant) ... has no alt-culture, doesn't emphasize culture or its improvement, but at least doesn't bullshit about that.
  4. ("double bottom") ... suffers from the dualism of culture (aka "cultural rift"): top- (and some of mid-)management naively believe they have A, while everyone else in the organization is aware they live in a sad reality of B (alt-culture).
  5. (fake culture) ... has only alt-culture because the other one is just a theoretical construct used by its executives for PR/marketing/other bullshit. Avoid at all costs.

How could you use this consideration to make better career decisions?

Proper recognition of the organizational culture of your future employer is one of the key activities before making your next career move. It's not easy and requires some deliberate effort. That's why so many people omit that step, relying on common opinion or PR messaging - that can be a costly mistake to make.

It's much safer to assume that there IS some alt-culture and perform a short investigation to confirm or deny that assumption. First of all - you need to get in touch with the correct people:

  • reach out to people "from the trenches" (who experience the culture directly) via your social network connections
  • or demand a meeting (as a part of the recruitment process) with your potential future team-mates/peers

Once you connect with them, ask specific questions like these:

  1. How do they make decisions (based on what principles)?
  2. How are their autonomy boundaries defined?
  3. How are the outcomes of their work assessed (based on what criteria)?
  4. How are the failures treated and what are the consequences?
  5. If there's something to be sacrificed (because the sky has already started falling), what's first and what's last in a queue?
  6. Can they give some recent example(s) of following one of their team's/company's principles/values? (e.g. to make a difficult decision)
  7. Can they give some recent example(s) of when the principles/values were more important than the status quo, org. hierarchy, or someone's prejudice/instincts?

The answers can be truly revealing. You'll thank me later.