When I facilitate team building classes for groups of people from different teams, one of the key questions we toy with is how to turn groups of squabbling people into tribes.  I use Gervase Bushe’s definitions:

  • A true team is a group of people with task interdependency; they sink or swim together.  It is not possible for one person to succeed while another fails.
  • A federation is a group of people with their own separate areas of responsibility, who are supposedly united under an overarching organizational mission, but who compete with each other for resources and usually spend lots of time politicking and engaging in unproductive conflict.  In a federation, it’s possible for some individuals to be successful while others fail.
  • A tribe is a group of people structured like a federation, in which people can win or lose individually—but that’s not how they feel about it.  They identify so strongly with the group that they’re willing to make sacrifices for the good of the group.

Since many workplace groups we call teams are not really task-interdependent, Bushe says we often end up asking the question, how do we turn a federation into a tribe?  How do we create that sense of identity and cohesion that inspires great work?

Through his fascinating TED talk I just discovered David Logan, who adds a whole new dimension to these group definitions.  He explains five stages of tribal membership, each defined by the world view of its members:

Stage 1:  “Life sucks”

At this stage individuals have disconnected from functional groups and sought out others who feel the same way.   This is the level of gangs and prison populations, and according to Logan’s research it represents about 2% of the tribal population.

Stage 2: “My life sucks”

In mediocre organizations, people plod through unimaginative, uninspiring work and wait for retirement.  About 25% of work groups are at this stage.

Stage 3: “I’m great–and you’re not”

At this stage, smart, successful people come together and try to “one-up” each other.  This is 48% of work groups.

Stage 4: “We’re great”

Members of a stage 4 tribe find something they have in common that elevates them to something greater than the sum of their individual parts.  This is about 22% of work groups, and Logan really endeared himself to me when he used Zappos as an example of a stage 4 tribe.  I blog about Zappos all the time; if you don’t know anything about them, read this.

Stage 5: “Life is great”

The 2% of tribes that reach this stage pursue noble causes and change the world.

So the key question for most organizations seeking higher levels of innovation, according to Logan, is how to take stage 3 tribes to stage 4.  Why don’t we focus on how to take them to stage 5?  Well, let’s be realistic.  Most of us are not curing cancer or ending apartheid.  Zappos, for example, is selling shoes.  They reached stage 4 by making their business about delivering happiness instead of about selling shoes.  For most of us, that would be a huge accomplishment and quite enough to focus on.

When you have a Bushe-style federation, a bunch of smart, successful people who aren’t working together cohesively and whose primary interest is in looking good at an individual level, you have a stage 3 tribe that needs to get to stage 4.  And there’s plenty of leadership fodder to focus on here: instilling a sense of purpose and meaning, giving people a sense of autonomy, celebrating the successes of the team, etc.  But while reading Adam Grant’s new book this week, Give and Take, I began to think about how much depends on the willingness of each individual team member to consider whole new ways of operating.  Grant analyzes the whole world in terms of givers, takers and matchers.  Geniuses tend to be takers (that’s a stage 3 tribe) whereas genius-makers, team members who enjoy collaborating and making others look good, tend to be givers.  Adams quotes Liz Wiseman in calling them people who  “use their intelligence to amplify the smarts and capabilities of other people…such that lightbulbs go off over people’s heads, ideas flow, and problems get solved.”  And while I’m certainly always trying, being a giver is something you can’t always teach people.  It underscores how important it is for a team leader to put the right people together in the first place.


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