by Peter A. Arthur-Smith, Leadership Solutions, Inc
“We are not good to each other. Our tribalism is an extremely narrow group of people: our children, our spouse, maybe our parents. Our society is alienating, technical, cold and mystifying. Our fundamental desire, as human beings, is to be close to others, and our society does not allow for that.” Quote by Sebastian Junger in his book ‘Tribe’, where he shares this view by anthropologist Sharon Abramowitz.
Junger led us to this quote, while pointing out the current difficulties US war veterans have experienced in reintegrating back into civilian life. He compared US war veteran difficulties with the apparent ease with which Israeli soldiers have been reintegrated; which have been considerably less for many reasons. Also, the rates of reported PTSD are far higher in the US; albeit that he documents – a fair amount of ‘fakery’ in order to qualify for benefit claims, compared with warriors from other nations. A lot of such behavior he suggests is brought about by significant challenges in reintegrating back into their civilian world.
In particular, he argues, in a convincing way, how returning soldiers miss the teamwork they experienced in Afghanistan or Iraq, which they don’t find back home – see our opening
quote. It’s also apparently true for returning Peace Corps participants, who have also endured challenging overseas assignments. In both instances, these warriors-operatives were drawn together overseas by adverse circumstances in their demanding assignments. Back home it wasn’t the same.
This author has also been part of past similar overseas military and operative assignments and, one thing that doesn’t help, is that close relatives and friends treat them in exactly the same fashion as they did before they left. They don’t take into account the rapid maturation and capability upgrade that has occurred in Vets.-Peace Corps volunteers, due to the dire circumstances they often found themselves in.(NOTE: Is there a strong case for families and friends to be thoroughly educated as to what to expect and how to behave when their loved ones return home?)
Potential employers often treat them like neophytes, even though the level of commitment, professionalism and teamwork they would bring to many civilian roles would be superior to many of the people they already employ. Only employers who have gone through similar experiences would be more open to draw upon their hidden service talents.
Conclusions like this remind this writer of one of his most enlightening people leadership experiences. This happened many years back when he was visiting a V-belt and gearbox manufacturer in Hull, England. Our group of master’s level students were briefed and dispatched to tour both operational units. When we returned to the canteen (dining facility), we were asked, “Where do you feel we have the greatest employee relations difficulties in the V-Belt or gear-box facility?”
Pretty much everyone felt the company’s greatest people difficulties would be in the V-belt section; with its dirty, grimy, dust-ridden, hot, smelly and hectic environment. It was like peering into a black hole. The gear-box-facility, on the other hand, was relatively clean, airy and quiet – other than lathes milling metal. Machinists were mainly content to stand around in their white coats letting their lathes do the work.
It turned out that our group’s conclusions were dead wrong. There was virtually no trouble from the black-hole. People volunteered to go there because morale was invariably high. On the other hand, in the gear-box facility, there were plenty of people complaints, militancy and overall morale issues. One reason being: the lathe operators had plenty of time to stand or sit around thinking about their lot and how life could be better.
Could this ironically mean that, the better we make our work environment, the more our people are likely to pursue wishful thinking? Could it be that returning Vets. and Peace Corps members find our advanced society conditions relatively sterile, non-welcoming and lacking in empathy (not sympathy)? Junger’s book again and again provides examples on how so many different tribes pull together in adverse circumstances. Also, he declares the paradox: where people become more selfish during peacetime and more drawn together in times of adversity.
What can we learn from this paradox when it comes to teamwork? Nobody’s suggesting that we should throw people into a black-hole every day, or put them into battle-lines, or into harm’s way. Maybe we have to find a substitute that is more civilized than war conditions, although at the same time inspires cohesiveness and produces worthy results. Let’s take a look at what may help:
» Opening gambit – The opposite of threat is opportunity. The bigger the threat the more it pulls people together. That holds for opportunity, too. This writer has been involved in so many scenarios where it has proven to be true. Jim Collins and Jerry Porras’s book, “Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies”, call it a Big Hairy Audacious Goal – a “BHAG” as they called it. While the idea has great merit, the book didn’t go far enough, in this writer’s opinion, in clarifying an important ingredient to complement it.
That ingredient being the share of benefit that a particular organization’s workplace people will also gain out of accomplishing the BHAG objective: be that including greater personal opportunity, rewards and recognition, as well as being part of a highly successful enterprise. In the past, executives or owners have generally reaped all the praise and rewards and used a big management stick with minimal rewards for the producers…no more.
Among the most fruitful and passionate discussions this writer has ever witnessed with groups of executives, have been when they were charged with the question: “What headline would you like to see about your organization, in a prominent business journal (name it), inside 1, 2 or 3 years from now?”
Once defined: “What things would you reinforce in your organization to accomplish that headline; and what key issues would you address or blockers would you remove to facilitate the same?” Thinking and conversation around such questions draws people together no end.
Work these questions through until your team is ready to pinpoint key priorities and link arms over them because, not only will the organization benefit from the outcome, these principal team members and their people should also reap considerable benefits of accomplishing the designated BHAG…definitely not only money.
» Second gambit – “Pair-up” your key participants to pursue these key priorities. Those pairs will preferably be comprised of people with complementary dispositions and skill sets rather than be strongly similar in outlook. The latter are unlikely to be especially creative, while the former will likely enrich their outcomes. There are ways you can figure this out: including use of the Mercury Communication Preference Survey.*
»Third gambit – Encourage those pairs to enlist – if they so wish – from 2-4 more people from across the enterprise; to collaborate with them on initiatives comprised of WHAT? HOW? WHO? WHEN? WHERE (to go for allies or help)? They should also give themselves a creative team name to encourage team action.
»Fourth gambit – Your follow-through. So many leading executives don’t do this. They throw teams an interesting bone and then trundle off to take care of business-as-usual. After your BHAG session, you need to stay involved weekly initially and then extend that into two-weekly and monthly sessions as momentum builds. Without this follow-through, the least inspired teams forget about their intentions and then other teams get tempted to do the same. If you just stay focused, their initiatives will be accomplished…you don’t have to shout, push or shove.
»Final gambit – Don’t forget the celebration when each team completes. An inexpensive group lunch, a long weekend, a letter of commendation, a pizza party, or combination thereof, goes a long way to reinforce tasks well done and encourages other volunteers to step forward next time around.
Assuming these suggestions all fall into place, team members will share how much they had a great team experience. They may even inform you that they would be happy to do it again; just for the camaraderie or tribe exposure. So, coming back to Junger’s book, it’s worthwhile quoting him once more:
“Soldiers experience this tribal way of thinking at war, but when they come home they realize the tribe they were actually fighting for wasn’t for their country, it was for their unit. It makes absolutely no sense to make sacrifices for a group that, itself, isn’t willing to make sacrifices for you.”
Can you find a way to draw upon these tribal instincts within your organization?
Footnote: This writer is concluding this article on July 4th at Groton Long Point, Connecticut. The GLP community celebrated the occasion with a 5km run and an all-hands parade. Hundreds of tribal runners took part in the run and hundreds more tribalists were out to participate and cheer along a pretty sizeable parade; consisting of kids, cyclists, antique vehicles, snazzy vehicles and fire trucks of all ages and sizes. And so, tribalism still exists somewhere!
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