How to Improve Company Culture (Tribal Leadership)

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Tribal Leadership" by Dave Logan, John King, and Halee Fischer-Wright. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Does your organization’s culture need an upgrade? Are employees unhappy and unproductive?

Some organizations are more effective than others. Tribal Leadership authors Dave Logan, Halee Fischer-Wright, and John King contend that culture makes all the difference. Their book is an in-depth exploration of how to improve company culture. To make that improvement, tribal leaders coach their people through five stages.

Let’s look at Stage 1 and explore paths you can take to get to Stage 2.

Improving Company Culture

To learn how to improve company culture, first, it’s helpful to understand what an unhealthy culture looks like. The authors describe a Stage 1 individual and identify three markers that help you know if your organization is in this stage. Then they outline paths to Stage 2 and discuss three changes that mark a successful shift from Stage 1 to Stage 2.

Stage 1: A Dog-Eat-Dog World 

The authors explain that, at Stage 1, individuals see the world as a harsh dog-eat-dog environment. Their lives are generally cruel and punishing, and they become both miserable and tough.   

For the individual at Stage 1, things have never been easy. He likely grew up in poverty and has been exposed to crime early in life. That early exposure kicks off a downward spiral that often leads to gang membership or a life of crime. Struggling with the practical and psychological hardships of poverty, he comes to see life as fundamentally unfair. In turn, according to the authors, he realizes that values are worthless—instead, he should do what it takes to survive, regardless of the rules. 

Since he lacks experience fitting in with “proper” society, he’ll struggle to hold down a job—you’ll rarely see Stage 1 individuals in the workplace. In fact, the authors say that they make up just 2% of the workforce. Because of this, Stage 1 group culture seldom exists outside of gangs; thus, the authors’ description focuses primarily on Stage 1 individuals.

Spiral Dynamics’ “Beige” Level

Tribal Leadership’s Stage 1 corresponds to the “beige” level or “value meme” from Spiral Dynamics. At beige, a person’s primary concern is survival, and he lives largely from instinct. In general, he aims to meet his physiological needs—food, water, shelter, sex—and has little thought of self-development. 

Critically, the authors of Spiral Dynamics emphasize that no level is “right” or “wrong.” Instead, they simply exist. In this sense, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with people at Stage 1—they’re simply operating in a way that meets their immediate needs and keeps them alive. 

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs also sheds light on Stage 1. Maslow suggests that if meeting your physiological needs is a constant daily quest, you simply can’t concern yourself with “higher” activities, such as personal or spiritual development. When living in the cycle of poverty, things such as food, water, and shelter are daily concerns—so it only makes sense that Stage 1 individuals feel unable to imagine that life could be bright, open, and full of potential.

Three Key Markers of Stage 1

As we explained in Part 1, each stage has three markers: a view of values, a way of speaking, and a relationship style. According to the authors, Stage 1’s markers are as follows:

  • Marker #1: Values are meaningless. To people at Stage 1, values hold little sway. Stage 1 individuals view anything positive as fake or fraudulent, and they view values as lies to keep people disadvantaged and weak. Since values are lies and the system is broken, Stage 1 individuals take an anything-goes attitude to survive—cheating, violence, and crime are fair play. In addition, the lack of values causes many Stage 1 individuals to give in to their vices. Given such hard lives, drugs or alcohol provide a temporary escape from a hellish world.
  • Marker #2: Language centers around the idea that life is fundamentally unfair—that the game is rigged. In fact, the only real view is that life is actually awful—unjust and cruel. Given that, you have to do whatever it takes to make it through. 
  • Marker #3: Relationships are strained or broken. At Stage 1, many individuals are alienated from friends, family, and work relationships. Their anything-goes behavior and recourse to addictive vices means that they often break down or cause problems. For individuals at higher stages, such behavior is often too much to deal with—so the Stage 1 individual easily loses friends and work.

Where relationships do form, Stage 1 individuals form Stage 1 tribes—which, most often, are gangs or prison cliques, the authors say. In such groups, individuals have an intense loyalty to the tribe, yet they struggle to form real relationships due to the hostile and alienating environment. Additionally, these tribes tend to commiserate and reinforce the Stage 1 attitude that life fundamentally sucks. 

The “Faustian” Value Meme

In The Listening Society, Hanzi Freinacht builds on the Spiral Dynamics model by distinguishing four dimensions of each stage: Cognitive complexity, symbolic world or worldview, psychological depth, and states of being. These four dimensions can vary in their level of development at each stage, allowing for a more nuanced view of the individual.

Freinacht’s “Faustian” value meme corresponds roughly with Tribal Leadership’s Stage 1. At the Faustian value meme, people operate according to “might makes right”—that is, those who can dominate with physical violence are in charge. Survival is still a main concern, and historical societies at this stage—such as the Vikings—spent time farming and time pillaging. As the authors of Tribal Leadership say of gangs, the ethics is honor-based. You must maintain your honor, even if that means doing violence or killing.

One shortcoming of the Tribal Leadership model is that it suggests that people at Stage 1 are incapable of forming meaningful relationships. In contrast, Freinacht suggests that at any stage, you can develop “depth”—a quality of emotional maturity that lends itself to forming healthy relationships. So, even under adverse conditions, people can learn from painful experiences and find ways to help one another. For instance, prisoners trapped in Nazi concentration camps bonded and cooperated as a survival mechanism and as a way to preserve their humanity. 

Paths to Stage 2: Overcome Despair

The authors explain that a tribal leader can coach an individual from Stage 1 to Stage 2 using the two core coaching opportunities: 

  • Opportunity #1: Adopt Stage 2 language. Encourage the Stage 1 individual to use Stage 2 language, which acknowledges that life works out for some people. In time, he’ll recognize that life isn’t universally awful, though he’ll still believe that his life sucks. According to the authors, this is progress.
  • Opportunity #2: Build relationships with a higher-stage tribe. While transitioning to Stage 2, the Stage 1 individual is at risk of spiraling downward due to a lack of support. Encourage him to build relationships with a higher-stage tribe, such as a Stage 2 workplace tribe. 

When coaching Stage 1 individuals, always listen and empathize. According to the authors, they often feel discarded and abandoned by society. Expect some hostility and defensiveness, and understand that such individuals are unused to receiving genuine care or help. In addition, emphasize that in every moment, we all have the choice to change our lives. 

Develop a Coaching Habit

The authors don’t explain in-depth how to coach your team members. For a reliable method, consider Michael Stanier’s advice in The Coaching Habit: Develop a simple daily habit of coaching your team members, and in that way help them to level up.

Specifically, Stanier recommends asking good questions and listening more than you speak. By listening, you get to know your team members and help them feel heard and respected. By asking good, informal questions, you can help them develop and avoid coming off as overbearing or intrusive. Stanier offers seven questions that open and progress a conversation, and three of them apply best to Stage 1:

“What’s on your mind?”—This gently opens the conversation.

“Anything else?”—This encourages people to say things that might be difficult to say.

“How can I support you?”—This communicates that you hear, see, and want to help this person.

By using these questions well, you can build a relationship with a Stage 1 individual who’s likely never had support, and you can guide him to a healthier way of living.

According to the authors, three changes mark a successful shift from Stage 1 to Stage 2:

  • Change #1: Shifting language. The Stage 1 individual stops expressing that life is fundamentally unfair, and he starts to say that his life specifically is bad. This reflects his changing attitude that life can work out for some people, and he might express envy about others’ skills, privileges, and social lives.
  • Change #2: Tired resignation. While this might look like a step backward, the authors explain that the Stage 1 individual often “deflates,” becoming less angry and more passively tired, when he reaches Stage 2. In fact, this is progress: It reflects that he now sees that life can work out, and he is unhappy that his life so far has not.
  • Change #3: Social shifts. When he moves toward Stage 2, the Stage 1 individual leaves behind relationships with people at Stage 1. This helps him to drop Stage 1 behaviors and adopt new Stage 2 behaviors.
Keep Your Models Updated

Above, the authors describe a specific sequence of changes that describe a standard shift from Stage 1 to Stage 2, regardless of the individual. However, note that like any model, developmental stage models have limitations. As Shane Parrish and Rhiannon Beaubien explain in The Great Mental Models Volume 1, reality is complex and constantly changing, while models are static and can become outdated.

Given this, note that the authors of Tribal Leadership provide only anecdotal evidence for the shifts they describe. However, anecdotes don’t necessarily prove that everyone will experience these stage changes in the same ways. According to Parrish and Beaubien, we need to constantly update our models according to what actually happens. To do so, start with the insights from Tribal Leadership, put them into action, and update your understanding based on what you experience. You might discover that people develop in various ways, and you’ll come to see each stage with more nuance.
How to Improve Company Culture (Tribal Leadership)

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  • Why culture makes all the difference when it comes to business
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Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, science, and philosophy. A switch to audio books has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a creative nonfiction book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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