Have you ever wondered about internal organization dynamics and why some groups of people (who aren’t on the same team) are more successful than others? Why different “tribes” inside the organization seem to be at war with one another lowering performance in increasing politics? Why certain groups of people never seem to do anything? Or why its hard to move into the next level? Read on.
Organizations are a collection of small towns wrapped into a bigger city. Each small town is full of people from slackers to sherifs. While the people in the towns are different, the roles are similar. In their book, Tribal Leadership: Leveraging Natural Groups to Build a Thriving Organization, Dave Logan, John King, and Halee Fischer-Wright, call these small towns tribes.
Tribes consist of groups of people from 20-150. (You can think of the test to identify whether someone is in your tribe as stopping to say “hello” and have a brief chat when you pass them on the street.) When the tribe approaches 150, a number that comes from Robin Dunbar’s research that was popularized in The Tipping Point, it naturally splits into two.
Importantly, tribes are not (necessarily) teams. Yet tribes are how work gets done in organizations. They have the ability to render the latest corporate culture efforts from CEOs useless. “In companies,” Logan and his co-authors write, “tribes decide whether the new leader is going to flourish or get taken out. They determine how much work is going to get done, and of what quality.”
As you can imagine some tribes want to change the world while others are content to take a lot of coffee breaks. What compels one tribe of people to constantly evolve and move forward and another to stagnate (succumbing to the Red Queen Effect)? The leaders of the tribe.
More than others, tribal leaders influence the culture of their respective tribes. Ambitious leaders focus on growing, adapting, and upgrading the tribal culture to improve the tribes standing in the organization. If they are successful, the tribe members reward them with “cult like loyalty.” (This explains the phenomenon of promotions in a lot of organizations: When the tribe leader is promoted, a lot of the tribe members follow suit.)
Organizations are the sum of the tribes. Some are moving in the same direction while others veer in another. Some tribes propel while yet others add friction. Some tribes attract talent and others eject it. Performance is set not by the individual tribe leader but by the aggregation of them.
Tribal leadership is a process not an outcome and most people are blind to the dynamics of their tribes. Like all of our mental models, when you learn to see your company as a tribe, you can’t unsee it. Things just click.
Logan and his co-authors simplify the dynamics of tribal leadership into 5 stages and they arrange the tools accordingly. Each stage has different “leverage points” to move to the next stage. “Each stage,” they write, “gets more done and has more fun than the one before it.”
Companies are never fully in one stage. They may have various tribes in Stage Two all the way to (hopefully) Stage Five. The more tribes you have operating at higher levels the better the company’s performance, at least in theory.
Every tribe has a dominant culture, which we can peg on a one-to-five scale, with the goal being stability at Stage Four, and on occasion leaps to Stage Five.
The leverage points to move from Stage Two to Stage Three is not the same as those you need at Stage Three to move to Stage Four. (A lot of business and self-help books fail to realize this point. Perspective advice is more contextual than people realize.)
Let’s look at the Five Stages before looking at the leverage points.
The Five Tribal Stages
Stage One (2%): This is the “life sucks” camp. Logan and his co-authors likely this to street gangs and people that come to work with hostility and despair.
Stage Two (25%): In this stage, life doesn’t suck, only your life. In this stage, Logan et al. write, people are “passively antagonistic; they cross their arms in judgment yet never really get interested enough to spark any passion. Their laughter is quietly sarcastic and resigned. The Stage Two talk is that they’ve seen in all before and watched it all fail. A person at Stage Two will often try to protect his or her people from the intrusion of management.” This tribe is largely a collection of victims. This is what we see in Government Departments or The Office. Innovation is almost non-existent. Urgency is reserved for the coffee break. Accountability is rare.
Stage Three (49%): Moving along the continuum from “my life sucks” (Stage Two) we arrive at “I’m great (and you’re not)”. “Within the Stage Three culture,” Logan and his coauthors write, “knowledge is power, so people hoard it, from client contacts to gossip about the company.” At this Stage people need to win, especially if that means you lose. On an individual basis, these people are generally competent but form a collection of “lone warriors,” who want to help but experience near continuous disappointment when “others don’t have their ambition of skill.” These people, however, are willing to do the work. The most common complaints for people at this level is that they are too busy, they have no time, and they have crappy support.
Stage Four (22%): This is the progress from I’m great (Stage Three) to we’re great (Stage Four). The journey is not measured in equidistant miles between each stage and the gulf between Three and Four is much larger than from Two to Three. In this Stage if you take the tribe away, “the person’s sense of self suffers a loss.” Leaders in this Stage feel “pulled by the group.” Stage Four tribes have an outside adversary (whereas those operating in Stages Two and Three often have internal ones.) “The rule for Stage Four,” writes Logan et al., is “the bigger the foe, the more powerful the tribe.” These tribes have little patience for the politics, personal agendas, and Office-style performance that dominate Stage Three. Like a transplant that doesn’t take, the group rejects these people.
Stage Five (2%): “Stage Five’s T-shirt,” write Logan et al., “would read life is great.” The language here is one of potential and making history. “Teams at Stage Five have produced miraculous innovations. The team that produced the first Macintosh was at Stage Five. … This stage is pure leadership, vision, and inspiration.” These teams often revert back to Stage Four to regroup before attempting to summit again.
“Tribal leadership,” argues Logan and his co-authors, “focuses on two things: the words people use and the types of relationships they form.” Moving from Stage to Stage means using different leverage points.
Leverage Points And Success Indicators to Upgrade Tribal Culture
For a person at Stage One:
- Go where the action is.
- Start hanging around people at Stage Two.
- “Cut ties with people who share the “life sucks” language.
The success indicators here are:
- A move away from “life sucks” language to “my life sucks.”
- Passive apathy replaces despairing hostility.
- Cuts ties with people at Stage One.
For a person at Stage Two:
- Start building one-on-one relationships especially with people at Stage Three.
- “In one-on-one sessions, show her how her work makes an impact.”
- Assign short duration projects that require little nagging (as that might reinforce the “my life sucks” language that dominates this Stage.)
The success indicators here are:
- A move away from “my life sucks” to “I’m great.”
- Name-dropping and bragging.
- Lone warrior fighting the good fight.
For a person at Stage Three:
- Encourage them to form three person relationships.
- Encourage them to work on projects bigger than something they could tackle by themselves.
- The way they’ve worked to achieve the success they’ve had up to this point won’t get them where they need to go. Focus on bigger goals and inviting people in to help them.
- Point to role models who use the “we” language and the success they’ve achieved.
The success indicators here are:
- They will use “we” instead of “I.”
- Their network expands from a few dozen to several hundred.
- Working less but getting more done.
For a Person at Stage Four:
- “Stabilize by ensuring (relationships) are based on values, advantages, and opportunity.”
- Encourage opportunistic behaviour to accomplish greatness.
- Recruiting others to the tribe who share values.
- “Perform regular oil changes with the team. In this process, she should lead a discussion about (1) what is working well, (2) what is not working well, and (3) what the team can do to make things that are not working well, work.”
Success indicators here are:
- A switch from “we’re great” to “life is great”
- Networks include a “stunning amount of diversity.”
- Time allocations are based on values and noble missions.
- Exemplar of the tribes values.
Tribal Leadership is a fascinating book that goes on to offer more strategies for leading others (and ourselves) through the stages. For members, we dive into some of the strategies the book offers for growing your network.