Does Your Tribe Own You or Support You?
“The bond that links your true family is not one of blood, but of respect and joy in each other’s life.”
– Richard Bach
When we look at work as a relationship, it is wise to examine how our tribes influence some of humankind’s most significant decisions about work, ones that can define the purpose of our lives, as well as impact our willingness to change. All too often, we underestimate the power of a tribe on our decisions, communications, and behavior. They are everywhere around us. Tribes are made up of families, employers, associations, clubs, towns, schools, and even brands.
Tribes have rigid rituals and expectations. When we break those rituals or expectations, the tribe responds with various versions of, “You’re crazy.”
A very successful insurance executive came through one of our programs. By the end of the first day, she had designed a compelling new career which included launching her first business. She found the new venture especially meaningful because it would solve a big problem in healthcare. That night, when she told her husband, she was lovingly prepared for his reaction, the one that indicated she was crazy to walk away from a big job that matched his perception of security.
Here’s another example:
We delivered our first leadership programs to one of the most iconic brands in entertainment. The initial program took place just after 9/11. Previously, the company had enormous resources to solve problems. But, after that terrible event, consumer spending had plummeted. We were asked to customize our program to inspire a business revolution throughout the company. In other words, instead of waiting for the resources to return, we had to orchestrate environments where individual contributors and teams would commit to transformative innovation, resiliency, and persistence.
The executives knew there would be pushback. A number of business units had laid off employees. The entire country was in one of the darkest periods of its history. People were stressed out. Now, their leaders were coming back from a retreat armed with a missive to start a revolution. Of course, they were characterized as crazy. In some cases, the most dominant member of a team would step forward to crush the initiative with cynicism and contempt. However, we created a thorough intervention with stakeholders early in the leadership experience. The executives met with the most influential members of the team and found ways to make the hard work ahead of them fit in with their own needs and expectations.
This is how we get tribes to support us.
Let’s begin with how human brains are wired. Our minds are capable of thinking about something other than ourselves for a maximum of 15-seconds. We are constantly referring back to ourselves with questions like, “Do I want this?” “Will this hurt me?”
The modern psychology of sales recognizes that pitch-selling or selling something our employees don’t want to do doesn’t work. When facing our tribe with a big change, it is always a good idea to speak in terms of what is in it for them. Time and time again, we find that leaders simply must reach the needs and expectations of each stakeholder if they want successful change in their organizations.
The same is true when one of us forges ahead with a big career change. Speaking to the needs and expectations of our family members is equally important. At one of our programs, a group of men returned from lunch laughing. Thanksgiving was a week away. A few of them had already made decisions to make significant career changes and they were envisioning how their families would respond to the news. They were all Jewish. During lunch one of them had come up with the Jewish Mother’s Hierarchy of Acceptable Career Choices.
There were 3 progressively more exciting possibilities: CPA, Attorney & Doctor. A specialty provoked a natural facelift. Make a break with the tribe and all hell breaks loose.
One of the gentlemen had been an attorney for six years and actually loathed the practice of law. A client of his was selling a florist shop. During the two days with us, he made a decision to buy the business. The following week, he would tell his family what he was about to do. His parents had paid for law school and drummed into him the importance of developing security through education and a good job. His conversation began with how much they had commented on his unhappiness with work.
“I’ve made a decision to change careers and one of my biggest motivators is to stop bringing negativity into our family. All of you know what I am referring to.”
He told them of the purchase and asked they give him a year of, at the very least, quiet or even better, support. He broke down the shock into manageable bites. A decade later, that business has grown into a spectacular success with over 30 locations. He told me that his success would never have happened without that education. The big difference is that he applied his knowledge to something he loved. Ever since that turning point, his parents receive a weekly delivery of beautiful flowers.
In today’s frenzied workplace, leaders are often stuck in a trance. The mere notion of adding another activity to their plate is met with, “I don’t have the time to do this.” But, the leader’s role is to gain as much support as possible from every stakeholder. This can only happen if the leader is connected to what his or her people want and need. Some direct reports will pour themselves into the work if they are rewarded with tangible progress in their careers. Others will be motivated by greater income. Many will be motivated by directly experiencing they are a vital part of a mission.
Leaders will never know this if they don’t ask and listen. In leadership development, it is almost routine to send out consultants to manage 360 interviews with stakeholders. Other processes use “confidential” online services where designated employees give their candid input. What a lost opportunity!
Our 360 process begins with researching business challenges, current and desired future states of the leader, as well as identifying problem relationships. We examine the quality of each significant relationship and look for potential improvements. From this intake process, we design a unique interview for the executive and each stakeholder. Then, we hand those interviews to the executive and instruct her or him to go interview their people. Initially, our internal partners developed anxiety around having leadership development participants conducting interviews without go betweens or filters. My response was, “Why on earth would you want an executive who is incapable of developing the kind of transparency where stakeholders can share their truth?”
We didn’t sugar coat the questions. For example, one of my favorites is, “What is it about me that either inspires or lowers your willingness to contribute?” Where there was conflict, we directed the questions towards tangible resolution. Where there were problems around skill deficits, we designed questions that would lead to an active learning commitment from the employee.
Of course, it takes a bit of courage to do this. But, we build safety nets so these initial conversations are the beginning of a new form of transparency between the leaders and their stakeholders.
I remember a business leader who arrived for a two-day event that occurs directly after these interviews. He had a reputation for being very aggressive and disrespectful. His technical capacity was profound but his management style led to ongoing casualties. Not long after we began, he raised his hand and stood up. People were stunned to see tears in his eyes. He told us that his perception of success had been centered on climbing the corporate ladder as quickly as humanly possible. If there were casualties, that was the cost of growing. This notion had been instilled on him by previous role models.
The interviews had led to a new outlook. He was stunned with what people had told him and realized he wasn’t getting their support because their actions were primarily motivated by fear. He told us that from this point forward, he was going to practice a new brand of success based by helping each member of his team grow and reach their own ambitions.
After giving us a variety of examples in how he would make a change, I said, “This is going to take a bit of courage. But, who in the room has had a sense of “you’re crazy” when hearing his message?”About half a dozen hands came up.
I continued, “If you are open to helping him make a long-term behavioral change, please keep your hands raised.”
Three hands remained and they became is new mentors.
Today, his business unit has a reputation as an organization that launches transformative careers. Top tier talent stands in line to get in because of the organization’s track record of meeting the highest standards and rewarding talent with accelerated career growth.
As we step into a world where accelerating change impacts us every day, we simply must build the very skills that help people stay relevant and competitive. We need leaders who fluidly zero in on what people want and need. We need leaders who listen and act. Most importantly, we need leaders who fulfill their commitments.
Many of us don’t get what we want out of life because we believe the right people will not help us. But, once we define what we want, our success is almost purely based on the quality of the support systems we build to launch, grow, and sustain our vision.
Developing our support systems is the single most powerful and sustainable way to become successful. But, sustainable support is not a one-way street. Those of us who ask for support and don’t help others will burn out and have to replace support systems. Those of us who support others but cannot ask for help will regularly burn out.
Engaging the tribe and building effective support is learnable and doable. But I have also learned that if we don’t learn this, the tribe will own us and will contribute to our failure. Quite simply, until we examine our own lives, we are living someone else’s life.
Years ago, one of my mentors, a guy named Jack Canfield, forwarded a copy of his new book to my home. I have this ritual with new books. I will randomly open a book with the notion I will read what is most important. That day, the book opened to a quote which changed everything. It read,
“You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.”
Raise your average.
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