Developing and creating tribes within organisations can change overall culture resulting in increases in well-being, innovation and high performance.

In this post I keep unpacking these insights from Tribal Leadership: Leveraging Natural Groups to Build a Thriving Organisation because I do believe that understanding the different phases and especially how to move people to those stages where excellence starts showing is crucial for any organisation or any leader to understand.

In this journey, the most important stages are 4 and 5, which focus on the tribe and shifts the focus from individual achievements towards a greater focus on group and what people can achieve together (see here for previous post on the issue).


Stabilising groups at stage 4

To be successful at stabilising a group at level 4, there are several strategies that need to be in place for people to excel in the mindset, moving from “I am great and you are not” (stage 3) to “we are great” (stage 4).

The tribes needs to address 5 components that are key for an effective strategy to be a functioning tribe and really change things around: values, noble cause, assets, outcomes, and behaviours.


Core values and noble cause

A common misperception persists about values: that values are the soft stuff that large organisations with lots of money can reflect over but where small companies should just focus on surviving and then think about values later on.

Core values are values that are central to everyone, not just the employees but also the CEO and higher management; values need to be visible in the day-to-day culture and actions so that they are truly embedded in how things work.

The real test of the values is whether people are living them or not; they cannot be seen as empty words on the company wall but need to capture the passion and purpose of why the organisation exists.

In fact, the values must extend to everyone, including people outside the group:

” “Integrity” is a core value only when people want to apply it to everyone- including their competitors” (p. 174).

Some organisations have flashy value statements but if they don’t embed these into everyday-decisions and behaviours in also how they interact with people outside the company, then the values are just words on a paper.

Core values and the noble cause are what drive people:

The reason tribes have a noble cause is that it gives them a common vision that cuts across individual differences and makes leadership possible” (p. 171).

It is a vision that helps people to align with each other, and guides the general decision-making within the organisation; whether actions and decisions progress the noble cause or not.


Assets, outcome and behaviours

One of the first discussions that tribes need to have is around the question “what do we have now”: what does the tribe have available in terms of multiple assets that they can bring together:

An asset is anything the tribe and its people have right now, and it includes equipment, technology, land, relationships, goodwill, brand, public awareness, reputation, culture and drive. The classic blunder in identification is considering only physical assets but ignoring people’s education, passions, and interpersonal networks” (p. 220-221).

The key to this conversation is not the future at this point but really focusing on the question “what do we have now” and being realistic of the current assets.

People often have a very narrow understanding of assets but once you have assembled the tribe, you can use this conversation to really discover the range and diversity of different kinds of assets that enable the group to progress forward.

Defining the desired outcomes (what do we want) and behaviours (what will we do) are also key for the tribe, which rely on 3 key questions in the process:

  1. Are there enough assets for the outcomes? (Can we accomplish what we want to do with what we have?)
  2. Are there enough assets for behaviours? (Can we implement the specific behaviours with the existing assets?)
  3. Will behaviours accomplish outcomes? (Will the selected actions result in achieving the outcomes that were set? Why not?) 

With each of these questions and the different answers each question could have, a strategy can be formulated that can simply be an interim strategy (e.g. there are not enough of assets X and these need to be built before we can achieve the outcome Y).

A tribe that has figured out the answers to these questions is much harder to deter from success than one where people are not clear what is needed, when, how and why.


Stage 5: global influence and impact

Once a tribe has stabilised at level 4, has thought through its core values and noble cause, identified its assets, and defined its strategies, for some that is not nearly enough.

Some tribes then want to move towards a much broader noble cause, and want to have a much broader impact which is when they have the ability to progress to level 5.

Originally the researchers thought that there were only 4 stages to tribal leadership and they were perplexed when they encountered organisations that did not fit those stages.

After further analysis they realised that there is actually a further stage from stage 4 where the conversation is very different about impact and influence and where the focus is on outside the core group and looks at helping more people than original groups in stage 4.

Stage 5 tribes have a global view, they don’t focus on other firms as competitors but see for example “disease” or “poverty” as their main competitor to beat.

“Moving to stage 5 becomes real when a group commits to a strategy (usually with several interim strategies to build its assets) that they think is beyond them- and beyond any competitor- that would have an impact on an entire world” (p. 245).

In many ways, stage 5 is about “having a mood of innocent wonderment and a level of performance that is history-making” (p. 280).

For example, some medicine companies see cancer as their largest competitor, not other similar companies.

They have a global vision to increase the well-being of billions of people through their investments in innovation that can be used to help others rather than just to compete with other companies.


How to start changing culture through tribes 

If organisations have more and more of stage 4 and 5 tribes, then it is possible to attract more excellence, higher performance and create more space for innovation, and in the end also change the whole organisational culture from inside.

The power of diversity of ideas sits at the core, and is enabled by drawing people from different disciplines, different positions, with different experiences and asking some of the big questions that should be answered.

This process can be as simple (or as complicated) as reaching across the institution, understanding how the different parts work, getting to know people in different positions and departments, and being able to leverage a more holistic understanding of what the capacities are.

Many of us get stuck in our departments or disciplines or within very particular KPIs, and only collaborate when we know that the others can help or enable us to reach our quota or goal if that is what we are judged on.

But that kind of siloed working limits the potential and our abilities to enable cross-sectoral and transdisciplinary innovation that often sparks because people with different backgrounds and knowledge choose to engage with each other.

I would add to the stages 4 and 5 that tribes should consists of people who have a good sense of humour, who are humble enough to be able to see the merit in different kinds of ideas apart from their own, and who have enough self-awareness and self-regulation to be able to collaborate in a way that respects idea creation and innovative thinking.

As the authors note, many tribes circulate often between stages 3 to 4, so the key is to keep the momentum going, to work in a way where people feel supported and excited to be part of something great that has value and such a noble cause that they cannot stop performing at their best.