This website covers knowledge management, personal effectiveness, theory of constraints, amongst other topics. Opinions expressed here are strictly those of the owner, Jack Vinson, and those of the commenters.

Tribal Leadership

I don't quite know how this happened, but I have just read another book on the tribal dynamics of organizations.  This time it is Tribal Leadership by Dave Logan, John King and Halee Fischer-Wright.  Of course, the book has its own website, where they are seeking more examples of Tribal Leaders and the organizations that create them.

My ears are up particularly because this is at least the second time this topic has arisen in my reading lately.  Great Boss Dead Boss (my review) developed along some of the same topics with its emphasis on people grouping together in tribes.  And these books taken together make me see discussions and descriptions of workplace behavior in a new light.  As in, "No wonder they are struggling.  They are clearly stuck in Stage 2." or "That is a classic sign of Stage 3 behavior."  For example, the Stages were so obvious to me in Luis Suarez' discussion of a Andrew McAfee piece that I had to mention it in the comments.

In case you aren't familiar with the idea of "tribes," the authors talk about them as the essential building block of human groups.  Tribes are small towns, work teams, lunch groups, corporate divisions, hockey teams, industry groups - tribes appear anywhere that people gather.  It's "built into the genetic code" for humans to gather in tribes for support and recognition.  The idea behind the book is to decipher what's going on in tribes, based on the authors' research, and look at how those tribes create Tribal Leaders. 

One of the big elements of their research highlighted that tribes operate in five different stages, with Stage 5 being the Workplace of the Future and composing fewer that 2% of workplace tribes today.  The stages:

  • Stage 1: "Life sucks" for everyone, and therefore it is okay for me to behave badly to make my way.  Fortunately, this stage is relatively rare in corporate life.  The book
  • Stage 2: "My life sucks" is an upgrade from Stage 1, as people can see that life is okay for some other people, but in this stage, people have little to no motivation to change because they believe their life (or their work) is bad because of uncontrollable outside influences.  It's all "their" fault.  The authors claim about 25% of workplace tribes operate in this mode.  And you can see it when you talk to people who use language that blames others and who are convinced that any change effort is doomed to failure.
  • Stage 3: "I am great, you are not."  Here is the world that many corporations live in (50% of workplace tribes).  Organizations have hired the best and brightest people, who have come out of educational and training environments that promote individual excellence.
  • Stage 4: "We are great, they are not."  This is a shift from individual competition to the entire tribe competing against other tribes.  In organizational settings, Stage 4 is a combination of having common goals and values as well as a common "enemy tribe" to compare against.  This represent 22% of workplace tribes.
  • Stage 5: "Life is great."  The pinnacle of workplace tribes are those who seek and promote good life for everyone.  The tribe is driven by their noble cause and for the shear joy of doing what they do.  Values are the central glue that holds the tribe together - and violation of those values can rip the tribe apart if the leader lets the violation stand.  There are no tribal competitors, not because they don't exist, but because the tribe is striving to make an impact (on the world) rather than striving to win (against another tribe).

While large companies may consist of tribes at varying stages and people exhibiting behaviors from several stages, the authors suggest that there will be overriding tribal cultures in every organization.  The book describes the process of upgrading from each stage with the explicit goal of helping the leaders (Tribal Leaders) bring their tribes into Stage 4 and 5.  As you might expect, the authors claim that tribes in the higher stages consistently outperform those in lower stages.  Interestingly, throughout the book the authors make it very clear that it is not possible to jump multiple stages at once.  Also, they suggest that the experience of previous stages are critical to growing into the next stages.  For example, the authors suggest the importance of personal excellence to Stages 4 and 5 relationships, and that is only there when people get through their "I am great" world of Stage 3.  Another aspect of the various stages is that there is some self-reinforcing behaviors that happen within the tribal cultures.  People look for evidence that things are still the same, so even when leaders attempt to make changes, it is the previous culture seeks to inoculate itself from those changes.  This sounds very familiar to anyone who has followed change management research and literature.

The description and discussion of Stage 3 was most troubling for me, as I was reading it.  I really didn't see a tribal culture described at all.  Rather, the "tribe" of Stage 3 seems to be a collection of individual contributors, who all complain that everyone else isn't as great as they are, and why can't people perform as well as them.  What is the tribe in that?  But then, seen in the context of Stage 2, which is almost a requisite tribe for the Stage 3 over-achievers to rail against; and in the context of Stage 4 and 5, where the personal mastery and expertise and crucial elements of building lasting relationships, then it becomes clearer that Stage 3 is a phase that must be endured, particularly for the Tribal Leaders.

While the authors didn't particularly cover this topic, it is clear that there is very little to do with technology in the transformation of organizations into Stage 4 and 5.  It's all about how the tribe and leader interact to develop the common values and seek out their cause.  I could see technology playing a supporting role in keeping people connected and supporting one another.  I could also see some interesting uses of Organizational Network Analysis in helping to diagnose where an organization might be in the spectrum of tribal stages.

When I talked about this book with my colleagues, they immediately heard undertones of the ideas of Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing (first proposed by Bruce Tuckman in 1965).  This model focuses on team development, though many others have used it and built upon the ideas.  I pushed against this connection in discussion with my colleagues, but the question is still sticking with me.  What is the difference between this Tribal Leadership model and the Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing model of team performance? 

The connection to Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing seems to be around the shift from Stage 3 to Stage 4: shifting from individual contributors to the group (tribe) contributing as a whole - and contributing more than they would as individuals.  In Stage 4 the group is aligned to a common goal.  Tribal Leadership calls this a Noble Cause (which I keep mis-typing as "Nobel").  My difficulty with this connection, is that I've always seen Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing as a team-level path, rather than an organization-level path.  But there is nothing keeping an entire organization from making that shift along these lines.  And I can see the Norming activity in particular as a tribe gelling around common values as well as around the tribal leader.

FYI: I "read" the free audio book version, made available by Zappos for anyone who's interested.  The book isn't about Zappos, but Zappos epitomizes many of the characteristics that Tribal Leadership discusses.  Listening forces me to pay closer attention - or pay attention in a different way.  I read it while sitting at my computer, because I wanted to build a mind map of the discussion.  The graphic below is my mind map, and here are pictures of the four main branches: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.  Be warned, they are large.

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