Leadership
May 7, 2012

Decoding tribal culture

Tribal Leadership: Leveraging Natural Groups to Build a Thriving Organization
Dave Logan, John King and Halee Fischer-Wright
Collins, 297 pages, $31.95

Look around your office. Nobody is wearing loincloths or carrying spears, the signs that we associate with tribes from our collective history. But in fact, your office has many tribes. Tribes are a basic building block of any large human effort.

They determine how much work gets done – and of what quality. They determine whether your organization will be successful. As a leader, you need to understand those tribes. And you need to know how best to manage theme to build a thriving organization.

A recent book by three consultants helps. Dave Logan, John King and Halee Fischer-Wright are partners in a firm called CultureSync, and in essence that’s what their book on Tribal Leadership is all about: understanding, and shaping, the culture of your office – a culture that gets expressed in the various tribes at your workplace and, at the same time, is influenced by those tribes.

Culture can seem elusive, difficult to get your hands on. But the consultants offer a handy five-point hierarchy that helps to make it more concrete. That schema is drawn from their study of 24,000 people in two-dozen organizations. They also neatly synchronize culture and strategy: if you want your strategy to succeed, you have to take into account the nature of the tribe you are leading, and how to influence it to attain your goals.

Tribes speak their own, distinct language. So to tell where you are on the tribal hierarchy, you have to listen carefully to the words around you:

·     Stage One: Most professional groups, thankfully, are beyond this primitive stage. If individuals at this stage had a T-shirt to express their sentiments, it would read, “Life sucks.” They are hostile, banding together to get ahead in a violent and unfair world. Anthropologists tell us human society started at this stage – the first tribes – and now it’s most commonly seen in street gangs. Fortunately, only about two percent of North American professionals operate at this stage at any given point. “We’ve consulted to several organizations with Stage One tribes,” the authors confide. “One disappeared after a series of accounting scandals. Another had constant problems with employees stealing money – seemingly without remorse. A third was so stressed that no one was surprised when an employee came to work with a shotgun.”

·     Stage Two: Here the common feeling is “my life sucks.” Individuals are passively antagonistic. Their laughter is sarcastic and resigned. The consultants note that if you have ever presented at a meeting with passion only to be greeted with looks of passivity, you have probably hit a stage two culture. They add: “Years ago, we consulted to an agency of the United States government. When we showed up, employees and managers would stand in their doors of their offices and entrances to their cubicles, looking out at a shared hallway. People looked as if they had just woke up (and many had). They would hold coffee mugs flaunting messages like ‘I’d rather be fishing’ and ‘I live for the weekends.’ No amount of team building, motivational speeches, discussions of core values, or new strategic plans would make any difference with this tribe. It was solidly locked in Stage Two. As a result, very little got done. The tribe produced few new ideas and almost never followed them up.” In 25 percent of workplace tribes, the dominant culture is stage two. Most organizations have pockets of stage two tribes. Your job is to change the culture, moving individuals up to Stage Three, before asking anything new of the group.

·     Stage Three: The operating credo here is “I’m great, and you’re not.” It’s the operating philosophy in 49 percent of workplace tribes, reflecting a society where in schools we were given gold stars for having the right answers as individuals rather than groups. So these tribes of competitive lone warriors maintain those individualistic ways. No amount of traditional team building exercises will turn them into a team, the authors warn. They get an addictive “hit” from winning, being the smartest and most successful individuals. For an example, look to the difficulties we have seen at times when NBA superstars are brought together to compete in the Olympics for the United States.

·     Stage Four: Sometimes, however, those NBA stars and their hockey counterparts on Canadian world championship teams have been able to mesh, attaining a higher tribal level, thanks to astute coaching and the players’ own understanding of what is needed for team success. At Stage Four, people have pride in the tribe rather than themselves as individuals. They don’t compete with each other. They exclaim (and believe): “We’re great!” Stage Four occurs in 22 percent of workplace tribal cultures. Members are excited being with each other, and feeling a sense of pride at what they have achieved or are achieving as a group. The tribe at this stage – be it a Canadian national hockey team or engineers at Apple wary about Microsoft – always has an adversary. And it’s the leader who influences the target. “The bigger the foe, the more powerful the tribe,” the authors advise. One hospital leader the authors cite, for example, chose to focus his tribe’s competitive energies on changing the way of operating in health care, rather than simply being better than a rival hospital.

·     Stage Five: The authors originally thought that was the summit and were about to wrap up their research in the early 1990s when they sensed an additional stage at biotechnology giant Amgen. Employees had the collective pride of stage four but they weren’t out to beat a competitor, unless it was cancer or arthritis. Individuals at this stage are intent on making a global impact. The team that produced the first Macintosh was at Stage Five, as are, often, Super Bowl winners in football and Olympic gold medal teams. The T-shirt for people at this stage would read: “Life is great.” But it’s difficult to stay at this stage. Tribes will recede to stage four for periods and then climb back into this phase at other times. Less than two percent of workplace tribes are in Stage Five at any one time.

So how do you handle a lower-stage tribe? The authors advise you to nudge the critical mass of the tribe into higher and higher stages. “The process involves moving many people forward, individually, by facilitating them to use a different language, and to shift their behaviour accordingly. As that happens, the tribe itself will produce a new, self-sustaining culture,” they explain.

Buried in that is a critical point. Not everyone will be at the same stage. You need to move the critical mass ahead, so then people who are operating at a lower stage will get the message that they are out-of-step. And you do that not by changing their beliefs, attitudes, motivations or ideas, because those aren’t directly observable. Instead, you focus on two things you can observe: the words people use and the types of relationships they form.

They call those ways of intervening leverage points, which are different for each cultural stage. Encourage a person at Stage Three, for example, to form triads, three-person relationships that turned out to be common in Stage Four tribes (while two-person relationships predominate at Stage Three). In a triad, the three ind

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