People Management : Beating The Tribal Drums – Co-opt your culture

Organisations in the 21st century are failing at culture. Look no further than the staff engagement surveys results from around the world which reveal that on average, only 20 percent of employees are fully engaged in their work and workplace.
Frighteningly, this of course means that 80 percent of employees want to withhold their discretionary effort from the company, speak less than positively about it in their own social networks and probably leave it within two years. This might explain why businesses so often quote the so-called ‘Pareto’ theory, that, on average 20 percent of their people generate 80 percent of the results.
Any traditional chief worth their head-dress, would cringe at such thought.
In traditional tribes, 80 percent of the people generate 100 percent of the results – the remaining 20 percent being too young or old to contribute in full.
Perhaps this explains why no traditional tribe has ever conducted an engagement survey. For them, building relationships, having sense of belonging, contribution, inclusion and dignity is considered equally important as achieving the actual results necessary to survive – such as trade, supply of food and water, and protection from the elements.
So why are organisations all around the world failing to achieve with their people what human beings do so naturally outside of an organisation?
How come we’re not creating powerful meaningful and cohesive cultures?
It’s the natural order of things when humans commune together. Birds flock, lions pride, fish school, and humans tribe. Anthropologists will be quick to tell you that tribes are the most enduring and successful social survival system that has ever existed on earth. Yet organisations seem to have somehow overlooked this.
In order for organisations to address some of their most challenging issues they could do far worse than adopt the rally call to “Get Tribal”.
So what exactly does that mean? No less than call to action to take your culture seriously.
While it could be argued that traditional tribes have less than impressive record when it comes to inter-tribal relations, there is still much to be learned from them about the glue that binds social groups. Many have survived and prospered for thousands of years despite incredible changes to their geo-political and economic environments.
Seeing your people and their activities as modern tribe can help to address many of the challenges organisations face with their cultures. These include silo mentalities, turf wars, leadership vacuums, low morale, disengaged workers, sagging motivation, workplace stress, soul-destroying environments, and leadership integrity to name few.

Lessons from the Tribes One of the first and perhaps most important things is to learn to develop “cultural perspective” – or the ability to see and understand your own culture.
Business people are often weak in this area, referring to culture as “the way we do things around here”. But this more accurately describes strategy than it does culture. Culture is deeper and more complex concept that has less to do with the “way” than the “why”.
Examine your leadership model. While traditional tribes are led from the centre, organisations (despite open plan offices and decentralisation) are largely led from the top. In tribes, leadership is contact sport. In organisations, too often it’s an email sport.
Managers need to get face time with their people and connect with them as person, not just as role or function. It’s worth making the time to do this. One way is to conduct regular 15-minute morning and evening meeting and greeting tours to check on the day’s challenges, conversations and energy levels. This twice-daily contact will do more for engagement than incentive programmes or performer-of-the-month awards.
It’s also important to connect people and speak well of others in their absence. Leaders should weave sense of community and belonging, demonstrating and commenting on the combined strength and value of each person, each team and department.
The southern African tribes have word, “Umuntu”, which captures philosophy that “a person is person because of the other people”. So manager is manager because of those they manage, leader is leader because of their followers.
Umuntu builds dignity for all. It resources humans to be strong together and addresses the elitist, sexist and departmentalist attitudes that are so common in our workplaces. Build line of sight in your organisation where people begin to clearly see the co-dependency and value of diversity in the tribe.
Instead of resourcing humans, organisations talk of human resources. When I speak to traditional tribes about my work in organisations and I refer to working with the human resources teams they often presume I am referring to “slavery” teams. In many tribes referring to humans as resources opens old ancestral stories of slave trading.
Co-opt your culture – or it can become the competitor within. Traditional tribal chiefs have talked to me about the importance of seeing their own culture both as their greatest strength and greatest threat. As one chief put it: “The collapse of our own ways, our own language and beliefs is bigger threat to us than western technology and commercialism.”
That is reality being discovered by organisations like Enron or Arthur Andersen. It’s not competitors that have wreaked damage on these companies – but their own culture.
The current lack of workplace cultural awareness and understanding creates an urgent case for business leaders to include steady informed and deliberate focus on ‘culture’ as key leadership mandate.
Tribes help create commitment. While modern organisational tribes pay for commitment, traditional tribes inspire commitment through meaning. So try asking your people what work means to them.
Does it mean job security, promotional opportunity, the chance to be associated with premier brand? Or does it means long hours, poor pay, high stress levels, no sense of belonging or appreciation?
Meaning is probably the greatest unobserved aspect of company culture. In terms of performance, I’ve repeatedly found that what it means to work for an organisation is more important than what the work entails and what outcomes it delivers.
If this all sounds bit ‘soft’ or left field, consider the findings of Professor Mike West of the London School of Economics whose extensive research of 100 companies over 10-year period showed company culture is on average eight times more influential on performance variance than the business strategy.
Is your organisation putting eight times the energy into identifying, communicating and emphasising culture than on strategy? If not, maybe it’s time to Get Tribal.

Michael Henderson is an Auckland-based corporate anthropologist who has studied and lived with tribes in over 30 countries for the past 40 years. He the author of forthcoming book on the Get Tribal approach to organisational culture.

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