As we looked at in our last post, there are several models you can use to understand culture, of which the most effective, and easy to understand and implement, is Tribal Leadership . The Tribal Leadership model is based on the notion that any “tribe” (group of people) will find itself in one of five stages of cultural development, which will be based on the stage that the majority of the tribe finds itself in. (It’s important to note that while the stage of the majority dictates the stage of the tribe, there may be individuals within the tribe that fall into any of the five stages.)
In order to shift the tribe’s cultural stage, a leader must shift the majority of the members of the tribe to that stage. This is not an evolutionary progression per se – in other words, culture can move down the stages, in a negative direction, as well as move up, in a positive direction (or, it can stay stuck at the same stage indefinitely). An intentional, step-by-step strategy is needed to ensure culture shifts in the right direction.
Regardless of which stage your team is at, there are ways to shift the team in a more positive direction. While it is tempting to start trying to build stage 4 or 5 right away, realistically, shifting the tribe one stage up the scale is the correct approach. In fact, it’s been found that people can’t even hear language that is two stages ahead – a person at stage 2 will find the team-oriented ‘we’ language of stage 4 too much a stretch from their current thinking. They will need to progress through the more self-focused stage 3 first.
- Stage One – The “Life Sucks” Stage. At this stage, members have a negative attitude and are isolated from others. In their minds, everything sucks – it’s not so much that the grass is greener on the other side, but rather that there IS no other side. Individuals are hostile to the world (or organization) at large and have a zero-sum attitude towards survival (it’s me or them). Statistically, it is rare for an organization’s culture to sit at this stage; however, you may have individuals within your tribe at this stage, and this can be problematic as they may influence other members in a negative direction.
Key steps at this stage include encouraging individuals to get involved and minimizing contact with other Stage 1 individuals and groups.
- Stage Two – The “My Life Sucks” Stage. “Cyncial” might be the right word to summarize this stage. Individuals at Stage Two have a ‘been there done that’ attitude towards their surroundings – they are devoid of optimism and feel that some things just don’t change. They are apathetic about what is happening around them, and see themselves as a victim of circumstances rather than as an individual of agency. Their goal is to get through the day and go home – there is little to no enthusiasm, proactivity, or responsibility at this stage.
Key at this stage is to enable encouraging wins – perhaps by offering smaller projects with better chances of success – so individuals and teams can start to see themselves as having the capability and opportunity to be successful. Making sure that they see the relevance of their work to the larger organization can also help with the shift to the next stage.
- Stage Three – The “I’m Great (But You’re Not”) Stage. The most statistically common stage for organizations, here individuals are motivated to succeed; however, they have a competitive attitude which says that their personal gain is the most important outcome in the situation. In order to assure their own success, they are willing to prevent someone else’s, be that through negative comparison, refusal to work as a team, or hoarding of information, skills and knowledge. Many organizations reinforce Stage Three behaviours through their compensation systems. If employees are bonused for their individual contributions, they will often act in ways that enable them to win at the expense of others. Although success may be evident at the individual level, the opportunity costs of failing to work with the good of the team in mind may be putting unnecessary limitations on that success, and indeed working against the greater good of the organization as a whole.
At this stage, start introducing projects that are more than the individual could handle alone, creating a situation where interdependence is necessary, and seek out role models who use and embody the language of “we” which is typical of Stage Four.
- Stage Four – The “We’re Great” Stage. At this stage, a generally positive attitude pervades and team members are genuinely happy. They view themselves as a team that is capable of taking on and defeating the competition. There’s a sense of interdependence and a willingness to work towards mutual success. Importantly, there is a shift in the language at this stage – from “I” to “we” – the indicates the broadening concern of Stage Four tribes.
At this stage, maintenance becomes a focus, with emphasis on regularly investigating what is working well and what needs improvement, so that there is a sense of stability and continuous improvement. Recruiting more individuals at this stage builds positive momentum, while defining uniting values leads to an expanding vision of success.
- Stage Five – The “Life Is Great” Stage. This is the pinnacle of tribal culture (and a statistically rare achievement for organizations). At this level, there is a purpose to the team’s efforts that goes beyond the usual corporate goals of profitability and beating out the competition. Rather, the language speaks to infinite potential and how the group can make a positive impact on history and the world at large. This group is in competition with what is possible – not with any other tribe. At this stage, there is nowhere further to go – the vision is one of positive, global contribution.
Regardless of where your team sits on the culture scale, shifting to the next stage is associated with increased performance. As a leader, focusing on positively influencing the culture of your team may be one of the most impactful achievements you’ll have.