In an ideal world, everyone in your office would selflessly collaborate together in pursuit of the common goal to serve clients and ensure the success of the firm. In reality, though, your staff and co-workers probably run the gamut, from people who are really focused on the team and the good of the firm, to those focused just on themselves, to those who don't seem particularly motivated to do much of anything at all. The latter, in particular, can be the most frustrating when mixed in with an otherwise proactive and motivated team. But new research suggests that surprisingly, if you want to upgrade the demotivated team members and make your office "tribe" more collaborative, the key first step is actually to try to make those individuals more interested in just selfishly helping themselves!
The inspiration for today's blog post is a book I just finished reading called "Tribal Leadership: Leveraging Natural Groups to Build a Thriving Organization" by Dave Logan, John King, & Halee Fischer-Wright. The book posits that people naturally organize into "tribes" - groups of about 20 to 150 people who know each other enough that if they passed on the street, they would stop and say "hello." A small company might be an entire tribe, while larger businesses essentially become a tribe of tribes. And according to the authors, the key distinction in why some tribes are more productive and effective than others is their culture, which can be upgraded or downgraded through the actions of leadership.
The authors describe five basic tribal stages; various members of the company/tribe may be at different stages, but the tribe overall will tend to be wherever the majority of the members are. The tribal stages are defined primarily by the language and attitudes of the people at that stage:
- Stage One: The person is alienated. Their general attitude is that "life sucks" and there's little reason to do anything constructive. People in this stage often have little respect for society at all, and may lash out. Groups of stage 1 individuals may form into violent groups such as gangs.
- Stage Two: The person is separate from most others, but not necessarily alienated. At this stage, the general attitude is not "life sucks" but "my life sucks" - an important acknowledgement that those around the person are succeeding, but the individual themselves feels ineffective or unsuccessful, and consequently tends to be apathetic. A tribe of stage 2 individuals will generally just do the minimum necessary to get by, with no motivation to do more (think certain stereotyped government bureaucracies, or the television show "The Office").
- Stage Three: The person is part of the tribe, but generally for personal reasons. At this stage, the general attitude of the person is "I'm great!" This is an upgrade from stage 2, implying that the individual has overcome the apathy of thinking their life sucks into the narcissism of being focused on their own success. Despite the self-centered nature of stage 3, it still represents an improvement from stage 2; at this point, the individual is motivated to succeed, albeit only in their own self-interest. On the other hand, the self-interested nature of stage 3 leads to personal competitiveness and an effort to control that can limit the effectiveness of the tribe. Nonetheless, most businesses have a stage 3 dominant culture, where success for the business is derived from a series of lone warriors who advance the firm in the process of trying to one-up each other to climb their own personal ladder of success.
- Stage Four: The person is engaged in a series of partnerships and teams within the firm, with a dominant attitude of "We're great!" The language change from the personal "I am great" to the team "We are great" represents a major shift in focus, often coming in a moment of personal revelation for the individual. Stage four cultures are genuinely collaborative and team-oriented; the competition is no longer other employees, but is instead about an external "them" - the competition to the firm as a whole. Stage 4 cultures are radically more productive and collaborative, and are found amongst the most successful companies in the world.
- Stage Five: The person at stage five has a worldview that "Life is great" where the focus on success transcends even the team and the firm, and extends to the impact on the world at large. In practice, even the most exceptional tribes only spend a limited amount of time at stage five before falling back to stage four.
In essence, most firms wish they could exist at stage four, where true collaboration and great things occur, but are mired in stage three at best, possibly with a large contingent in stage two. So how do you get your firm to stage four?
First of all, people (and firms) progress through these stages in sequence. You can't jump someone from stage two to stage four. Which ironically means if a staff member is apathetic and uninterested and thinks their life sucks, the key is not to get them to buy into and aspire to a collaborative greater-purpose mission for the firm, but to encourage them to become more interested in improving themselves; only upon reaching stage three, where the individual finds some motivation to personally succeed, can their focus then be further "upgraded" from themselves to the broader firm and mission. Key steps to helping someone move from stage two (where they are generally disengaged and apathetic) to stage three including encouraging them to engage and make more friends and form more connections within the firm (especially with those who are nearing or at stage three); show in one-on-one sessions how the individual's work does make an impact (improving his/her self confidence and belief that personal success is possible); and assign finite projects that can be accomplished successfully in short time to reinforce personal success. You'll know it's working when the individual starts taking an interest in his/her own success and stops using the "my life sucks" language.
Upgrading your tribe from stage three to four can sometimes be more difficult, as the dominance of stage three success can be a difficult habit to break, especially if your firm rewards people for stage three behaviors. But the authors suggest that one of the key distinctions to upgraded stage three individuals is to help them form triads - three way relationships - that are the essence of teams, rather than the large number of two-person relationships (dyads) that tend to be formed (popular with stage three individuals who want to control every relationship for their own benefit). It can be especially effective to introduce people who have complementary but not competitive skills, so that they are more likely to find benefit than competition by working together. The authors also suggest encouraging stage three individuals to work on projects that are bigger than anything that can be done alone; in essence, assign work that would require the individual to work with others (and note this is a contrast from stage two people, who should be assigned projects they can complete on their own, to build their personal successes and confidence). Helping people to transition to stage four may also require pointing the individual towards other stage four individuals in the firm - showing them the greater success that comes from focusing on "we" instead of "I" - and it is especially crucial that the tribal leader themselves be at stage four and truly "walk the talk" themselves.
If you're interested in more information about Tribal Leadership, and how to upgrade your team, check out the 16-minute video below from TedxUSC featuring Tribal Leadership author David Logan. Or get a copy of the Tribal Leadership book yourself. You can also see more information on the Tribal Leadership website.
So what do you think? What stage is your firm's tribe at? What stage are you at personally (note: the authors found that people have a strong tendency to overestimate their own tribal level by 1-2 stages!)? Could you upgrade your own tribal stage? What about the stage of your whole firm's tribe?