The Emergence of Corporate Tribes

Part 1

Recently I came across a LinkedIn post from a manager asking followers, why some employees regularly change job positions on a yearly basis. This got me thinking about commitment. From my research on Corporate tribes, I remembered the following statement from one of the participants: "The kind of work that I have been doing hasn't changed, but the employer has changed. I'm more deeply attached to my work than to my employer. However, I need to caveat that of not even completing one year of work with my current company, so that may change as I spend more time in the company."

Why do employees need such a longitude of time to build commitment (loyalty)? After one year it should be obvious to the employee whether or not they see themselves in the organisation. This raises an interesting discussion about commitment to one's work, the organisation, and the motivational contingents behind it. There is also a dilemma of what agency employees take, if they are committed to an organisation but not to changes in the organisation.

Work is the expression of our moral character. The subjectification of work in essence is what we do as workers which also shapes our personal identity. We take pride in our mastery of work such as acts of virtue that we tell ourselves, to our family, friends and neighbours. But where do we get the motivation to work in a workplace that has become so fast changing and performance pressured? Is it not to put food on the table, a roof over our head, pay for the online steaming TV service and pat ourselves on the shoulder for a job well done? Our Western strive to work can be found in Calvinistic motivation, where one should perfect their life, especially at work, thus achieving moral pureness. This was the motivation of work inferred by M. Weber and why people take pride in mastery.

People take control of their condition, build self-authority, and ultimately form their human character which is vital for a sense of inner value and basic security. As E. Backer wrote in his interpretation of Kierkegaard: "the true individual, the self-realized soul, the real man, is the one who has transcended himself." This is the factor that HR gages and identifies when job candidates or employees desire something more than remuneration. Employees actively engage in achieving this interminable moral pureness. If employees one or five years on the job believe their mastery development is hindered, they will leave the organisation.

But life makes sense and time is well spent if organisations skilfully align personal desires, values and employee motivation with the collective and with the mission and goals of the organisation through total reward. In addition, organisations offer 'freedom' and choice through social citizenship within the workplace. Referring to what employees really want Adam Grant said it best: justice, security and control. Particularly, control in shaping one’s destiny and influence in the organisation can be analogous to virtue of work and happiness at work.

It looks like organisations got it right. However, it’s a very delicate balancing act to follow. Because of fast-changing market conditions, technology and pressures on organisations to adapt, employees are experiencing constant motivational crises. Talking about ongoing change initiatives in the organisation, one participant in my research noted: "If the slightest whiff that it might not be successful and what everyone is looking for then you will just get people jumping on that and be negative about it".  If employees experience this misalignment, sooner or later, they will leave the organisation.

Considering misalignment, I was sceptical about disgruntled employees staying on and being committed to the organisation. Yet, employees do stay committed but sometimes appose changes set forth by top-management. This situation is currently being played out with Silicon Valley workers. They are speaking up about the unethical uses of their work. Their mastery is misused by tech organisations. To preserve their virtue of work influence and the matching organisational values, employees turn to and establish tribes as safe heavens, support networks, and power structures.

Looking at tribes up close in my research, four features emerged:
They are made up of different groups. Tribes have their own distinct culture, interests and span multiple hierarchical levels and geographical locations. They grow by recruiting members that share their interests or share a specific property. In the research, employees who started employment and got promoted together formed a tribe.

They are safe, supportive, developmental as well as influential entities. Tribes offer an alternative to the collective organisational identity, because they offer not only friendships but also career advancement through solidarity. The tribe will help a member develop their mastery. Tribes unlock employee potential and cultivate passion in the workplace. They are learning supergroups. Subsequently, the member will advance in the formal organisational structure and act as the tribe’s bridge and influencer to higher organisational levels. This solidarity amplifies the amalgamation of tribe members, and gives them a common goal and structure. Tribes have the potential to hold key sources of influence, have a covert tribe agenda, and are likely to instigate organisational changes.

They are individualized and leaderless. Tribes will approach top-management with one voice but go about it individually, using the professional and friendship contacts of individual members. Thus, they influence individuals at all levels to carry out their tribe’s agenda. The members consider themselves equal and do not elect a leader.

They are contingent on the types of organisational changes. When organisational changes are minor and episodic, tribes keep their discussed issues and solutions hidden, act passively and do not engage in resistance to changes. However, if the changes are disruptive and emergent, as is the case in the example of Silicon Valley employees mentioned above, tribes will thrive and potentially cause significant resistance to change. In addition, tribes need to build up a critical mass of followers to instigate these changes by forging alliances with other informal groups.

Since the Hawthorn experiments in the 1960s, researchers have closely studied informal formations in organisations. It seems that organisations discovered the secret formula of how to make employees happy and motivated long ago. Perhaps the contemporary workplace might elevate tribalism to a power worthy of being addressed and utilised by top-management. If tribes are ignored or eliminated by organisations, on the whole, organisational commitment will plunge and employees will leave the organisation. And yet, tribes offer a glimpse into the future of work. In scalable learning, future work champion John Hagel noted that passionate explorers with refined capabilities come together in groups to learn faster and create high levels of impact in their respective fields. It seems that this dynamic forms naturally in organisations as a tribe. From my research, tribes are not considered important by organisations. It is yet to be seen if organisations can identify and tap into the tribe’s potential for value creation, retain workers or remain contented with standard models of work.

Part 2 will look at the key source of tribe development and influence, the tribe leader.

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