Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Role of Narrative in Corporate Tribalism

My final paper for the Creative Management Thinking Class


Role of Narrative in Corporate Tribalism

Humankind has little changed since the prehistoric times in the way it relates its stories. The context might be slightly different, given the modern realia, but the impact narratives have on collective and individual behavior, in my opinion, has been constant. Before civilization, narrative played a vital role in the very survival of a tribe, since it performed three main functions:
  •        self-identification (this is how we see ourselves, this is how we are better/worse than our neighbors, etc.);
  •        knowledge transfer (since there were no other means to record collective experiences and wisdom, stories had to be told and re-told to remain in human memories), and
  •        unification (defining the need to stay together, outlining common enemies and potential hazards).

That was before the Internet, Bloomberg and CNN. Nowadays, seemingly there is little need for narratives for us: we are able to get whatever information we need rather painlessly and store our collective experiences just as easily, thanks to Wikipedia, the blogosphere, and the like. Still, modern tribal narratives thrive and rule people’s behavior in the best traditions of cognitive psychology. Business space, however, is particularly vulnerable in this respect.

Research suggests that tribalism is an inevitable part of any large corporation[i]. Its role is ambivalent: it promotes a sense of belonging, team identity, family feeling, but at the same time it can be a source of hostility towards other “tribes”, silo mentality and divisionism. Hence, I see at least two types of narrative being in conflict in a “healthy” organization:
·         corporate narrative (corporate values, Type B beliefs (how things should be), mission, vision, goals and targets, corporate heroes and role models, successes and failures, collective stories, projected image, external enemies, etc.)
·         tribal narrative (small group values, Type A beliefs (how things are), internal enemies, short-term goals, often substituted by personal objectives, etc.)

They are antagonistic in their message and protagonistic in nature. Both are intended to unify people around a goal, tell them who they are and what they should work for, and that is how corporate history is relayed. Both have roots in a resource scarcity belief and are needed to protect the community members. However, it is only logical to suppose that tribal narratives are counter-productive to the overall success of a firm, since they promote in-fighting and separatism.

Thus, what should companies do? I do not think that it is reasonable to expect that it is possible to eradicate tribes in large corporations, especially now that we are living in the era or mergers & acquisition: there will always be “us” and “them”, “old” and “new”, “working horses” and “prima donnas”, etc. If we cannot change the nature of things, we might try to frame this very nature differently, i.e. shape the narratives.
There is no need to adjust anything when the narratives are in congruence. In that case, we can even observe synergies and potential for self-development, creativity boost and endogenous growth. For instance, Microsoft has its own evangelist group[ii], and to me this is a perfect example of narratives convergence: both are aligned and one reinforces the other.

We are facing a problem when there is a narratives conflict, i.e. one contradicts the other. I have observed it on multiple occasions: the corporate propaganda might be “selling” ideas about teamwork, work and life balance and respect for people, while in reality resources are allocated in such a way that you won’t get ahead unless you undercut colleagues, work ungodly hours and connive to make sure you have a spot in the sun. That is the point when the narratives diverge and deviant behaviors develop. When this happens and the company is truly concerned about sustainable growth (since recently most blue chips have Talent Sustainability section in their CSR annual reports), efforts need to be taken to bring the two back together, either using modern witchcraft (team building, group coaching, corporate mantras, etc.) or management consultants.

[i] McGee-Cooper, Ann. 2005. Tribalism: Culture Wars at Work. The Journal for Quality and Participation, 28, 1: 12-15.
[ii] Microsoft Creates New Division to Step Up Focus on Software Developers., 2001. Accessed on February 20, 2011.

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