One of the things that I enjoy the most about managing the Agricultural Technology Research Program (ATRP) here at Georgia Tech is interacting with people, whether it be internally with colleagues or externally with visitors and stakeholders. However, for many of us, it is the people part of our operations that is often one of the more challenging aspects of our business. I’d like to share a rather basic framework from the book Tribal Leadership by Dave Logan that I have found useful for leading people and understanding culture within an organization.
The Tribal Leadership framework focuses on five distinct cultural levels that are characterized by the words that people within the tribe use and the relationships they form. The tribe in this context is a small- to mid-sized group of people who have some common connection or affiliation. The level at which most members in the tribe are functioning will establish the culture of that tribe within the organization. Every person has the capability of functioning at every level, so be sure not to define someone as “being” a specific level, but rather refer to individuals as “functioning” at a specific level.
Level 1 – At this level, individuals are completely alienated, see no value or purpose in life, regardless of economic or social status. They are despairingly hostile and band together only to get ahead in what they see as a violent and unfair world. It is characterized by the language “Life Sucks!” and individuals functioning at this level make up only a small fraction of the population. The best way to help individuals at this level grow is to help them understand how the real world works: through relationships and within societal norms. Encourage them to go where the action is, to socialize and become part of a group.
Level 2 – This level is characterized by the language “My Life Sucks!” Individuals at this level still function separately, but are beginning to recognize that the lives of others (particularly organizational leaders) seem to be pretty good. Tribes at this level tend to be made up of fragile alliances around common themes of disdain for the system or the boss. They are often sarcastic, passive-aggressive, apathetic victims who don’t feel that their contributions matter. Ironically, the best way to help them is to give them tasks that they excel at and can complete that have clear and demonstrable value to the tribe or organization. Then encourage them to form relationships with folks at level 3.
Level 3 – People operating at this level see themselves as the very best at what they do, and their characteristic language “I Am Great!” clearly denotes that. The unspoken but clearly inferred rest of that phrase is “But You Are Not!” We often see these individuals in academic or medical fields, where they truly are experts that are surrounded by a support cast (students, medical assistants, nurses, etc.). For them, knowledge is power and winning is personal. They are always competing (both internally and externally), and as a result, they operate as lone warriors hoarding information, resources, and relationships. Roughly half of the population functions at this level. As you are looking to lead people to the next level, it is important to show them that real power is in the network, not just knowledge. Encourage them to connect their contacts, work on bigger projects (that they alone cannot complete), and begin to build teams.
Level 4 – This level is comprised of individuals who are truly functioning as teams characterized by the language “We Are Great!” with the inferred end of the phrase being “But They Are Not!” There is still a strong adversary. Individuals in a level 4 tribe are excited to work together, share common values and strategies, with an overarching focus on the good of the tribe. The network is generally very strong, interconnected, and owned by the tribe, not individuals. Less than one quarter of the population functions at this level, and as leaders our focus should shift from changing levels to stabilizing individuals at level 4. Ensure the tribe is operating on shared values, resist the elevation of certain individuals (experts) in the tribe who can quickly revert to level 3 thinking. Allow the tribe to solve problems and challenge them with ambitious “stretch” projects.
Level 5 – The language here is “Life Is Great!” No qualifiers! Individuals and tribes functioning at level 5 have a sense of destiny, greatness, that they will make history, and the only competition is the impossible. Relationships consist of highly networked teams that include both internal and external contacts. A quick confession: most individuals and organizations cannot stay at level 5. Even the very best will end up bouncing between levels 4 and 5, as sustained long-term operation at level 5 is simply not human.
One way to shape the culture within an organization is to help individuals within the tribe progress through the levels. The language they use and the relationships they form indicate the level they are on. Successfully getting people to progress is also predicated on establishing a set of shared core values and a vision that identifies the “noble cause” of the organization. Individuals simply cannot skip levels. They really do need to develop at each level prior to moving up, and once a critical mass of individuals has been established at a particular level, the tribe will take over and establish the culture. Then it is time to start helping them move up to the next level.
If you’re interested in learning more about the five levels of Tribal Leadership and how they affect organizational leadership and employee culture, I encourage you to buy a copy of Dave Logan’s book, Tribal Leadership.