Research Paper By Deborah Pendleton-Maurice
(Career Coaching, UNITED STATES)
According to the authors of Tribal Leadership1, the predominant culture in today’s corporations values the contributions of individuals. Yet, evidence suggests that organizations with strong teaming cultures excel.
In a recent interview that I conducted with a Corporate Learning Officer of a global corporation (10000+ employees located in approximately 90 countries), the CLO believes groups that team well often produce more impactful results. However, this CLO believes that many companies still operate in the more traditional command and control manner. He also said that the move from a command and control culture to a teaming culture is extremely difficult.
This paper explores how leadership coaching might be used to move loosely teamed individuals to exceptional, innovative and impactful tribes. There are inherent challenges that must be overcome. You will read about these topics in the following pages:
- Tribes through the eyes of the Tribal Leadership authors
- Coaching in a tribal environment
- A call to action
Teams through the eyes of the Tribal Leadership authors
In Tribal Leadership, the authors put forth the premise that all organizations are a tribe – or a network of tribes. They define tribes as groups of 2 to 150 people. According to this premise, the tribe is the natural organizing structure of humans. It exists to get stuff done. Because it forms more naturally, it is more fundamental and stronger in its purpose and unity than a forced team structure.
They liken the tribe to a small town. In a small town, you know each other. You clearly understand each other’s role: the mayor, the council, the dry cleaner, the grocer. You know how to work together and, very often, how to work together to do something extraordinary.
My husband and I recently moved from a relatively large town – really a network of towns – to a small town. Shortly after our arrival, the town was faced with a devastating tragedy and the loss of 19 beloved fire fighters. The town went into deep mourning – and action. The reaction of the town was an organic reaction from all within to the needs of the fire fighter’s families, those who lost their homes, and to each other. Nearly every person in the town knew at least one of the lost fire fighters. The loss was palpable.
This was an awesome demonstration of the power of a tribe. Each person within the tribe knew what to expect of others, and how to work together to get what needed to be done, done. They reached out to each other. They came together to comfort, grieve, and slowly heal. In the language of Tribal Leadership, the town operated as a Stage Five tribe. Let’s take a closer look at what that means. We will focus on tribes in corporate organizations as we move forward, however the small town analogy is good to keep in mind to help contextualize the discussion.
Before we jump into the stages, it is important to note that the authors use the word tribe, and not team. Tribes are people who naturally group together based on shared values, similar behaviors, and a particular view of the rest of the world. Only the more evolved groups are categorized as teams.
The Five Stages of Tribes
Logan, King, and Fischer-Wright identified five tribal stages – a description of each follows. As you think about each of these descriptions, think about how humans accomplish extraordinary results. Are our results typically because of our individual contributor role – in other words think about a company or a town as a collection of individuals – or do we succeed through what we can do working together?
Note: When the authors talk about these stages, they recognize that corporations will have tribes at different stages, but they argue that all corporations or organizations exhibit a dominant tribal stage.
In this stage, the tribal members are deeply connected to a feeling that “life sucks.” Their language reflects hostility, and their focus is surviving in what they perceive to be a horribly unfair world. Fortunately, the authors contend that only about 2% of American professionals operate here at any given point (note: the interviews conducted were in the Americas rather than global). Tribal Leadership explores this stage further with emphasis on how to spot it, and how to expel it or move out of it. Companies that operate in Stage One typically don’t last.
As a leader, have you ever encountered crossed arms, derisive chuckling, and a general demeanor that suggests what you are trying to convey is patently ridiculous? Welcome to Stage Two. As described in the book, these are people who think they are victims – their life sucks. Unfortunately, we’ve all seen this, and in fact the authors contend that Stage Two is the dominant culture of 25% of workplace tribes. Because this tribe has a significant presence, and because it can negatively influence more impactful tribes, we’ll look at how leaders can address this group to raise their tribes.
These tribes are comprised of what I call the “cowboys.” These are the tribes who believe that their individual talent and drive are paramount, and they represent about 49% of the corporate cultures. As you would expect, they are talented, ambitious, and highly competitive. At first glance, we would think that this is an ideal state for companies – people who exhibit this behavior work hard, excel, sometimes innovate, and challenge others to compete to win. But here are some of the observations of the Tribal Leadership authors when encountering this culture:
A typical faculty meeting shows the limitations of Stage Three. One professor after another gives his opinion and says what he thinks should be done. The result is that most educational programs look as if they had been designed by a committee—because they were.
People show up, do their individual research, teach their classes in a manner described by IDEO’s David Kelley as a “sage on stage,” and then leave. (Tribal Leadership, page 22.)
I had a major epiphany the first time I read this. At one point in my life, I spent about six years in this kind of environment. Having been that Stage Three person, at first it seemed like the right place for me. Then something happened. I was depressed, frustrated, and convinced that rather than contributing to the health of the company – we were actually not providing the value that we had the potential to do. Why? Because we didn’t have a unified strategy. We were all ‘cowboys’ trying to be the smartest, the most recognized, the winners. I changed career paths, and joined another department in the company that turned out to be what I now understand as Stage 4 (more to come on this!). The change was remarkable. I cringe when I have to work with Stage 3 groups – but at least I now understand the difference and make sure my armor is in place.
This is a tribe of smart, hard-working contributors with a common purpose. As described by the authors, they have a “commitment to shared core values and hold one another accountable. They will not tolerate…the personal agenda of Stage Three.” (page 24). 22% of workplace tribes excel here.
This is where we say “life is great;” the language of Stage Five “revolves around infinite potential and how the group is going to make history – not to beat a competitor, but because doing so will make a global impact. This group’s mood is ‘innocent wonderment,’ with people in competition with what’s possible, not with another tribe.” (page 25). 2% of workplace tribal cultures excel here, according to the authors – and most of these move in and out of Stage Five. I consider my little town to typically function at Stage Four. When the fires hit – the town rallied to an incredible Stage Five. I witnessed it and remain in ’innocent wonderment’ as I remember what the town accomplished.
The remainder of this paper is focused on the application of leadership coaching to raising tribes. The authors don’t believe that it is possible for a corporate culture to skip a stage; they also believe that moving from Stage Three to Four presents a significant challenge.
Coaching in a tribal environment
My focus in this paper, as in my current career, is on coaching in a corporate or organizational environment. But as an aside, I don’t think that the prevalence of Stage Three cultures is unique to business. I think it is rare, but wonderful, when we see political or social structures rise above Stage Three to do something amazing. And it is tragic when we experience the horror of political or social structures acting out their terror, exemplifying Stage One.