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Employee engagement and the power of purpose: How do you map the purpose of a tribe?

David KennyDavid Kenny·
Employee engagement and the power of purpose: How do you map the purpose of a tribe?

In the second of a two-part series, internal communications specialist David Kenny reveals a framework for enabling employees to identify a sense of purpose

Why do people join tribes? To continue on the scalability conversation started in my previous blog about building the purpose of a tribe, we have to ask this question.

Some are born into them, accept them as a given, never look elsewhere, and view anything that challenges the belief of their tribe as threat. The unconscious believers can be fiercely loyal, but their loyalty is quite brittle, born out of fear and inflexibility, it can’t withstand challenge. They are unaware of why they believe, but they definitely do believe, and you had better well believe too!

In a corporate world, these kinds of tribe members do show up, and in a variety of different ways. They start as irrationally enthusiastic, they have ‘drunk the Kool-Aid’, they are fired up, ready to do battle! As they mature, this fanaticism might give way to cynicism, a protective carapace, and a profound resistance to change.

For many organizations, these ‘foot soldiers’ are seen as desirable. They can be relied on to get the job done, in a dogged unquestioning way. To a certain extent, this is a symbiotic relationship. For a general to be a general, there needs to be a bunch of people who will run when he shouts “charge”, and for people who have stepped back from the responsibility of making decisions about what they really want from life, you need a high volume of very loud generals.

The most distressing aspect of this is the distasteful idea that only the generals have a purpose, the foot soldiers are merely the means by which it can be achieved. “Purpose” is the domain of the senior executive, and will be defined by them for others to follow. To be a member of the tribe, you must wholly accept the purpose as it is given to you. Questioning of that purpose will not be condoned. If we blur the distinction between “purpose” and “strategy”, you get the idea.

Pretty much everyone has experienced this type of tribe, and we have asked the questions, refused to give up on our own purpose and looked for other tribes. A thrilling aspect of the Edelman research I mentioned in my previous blog is that we now have a generation of wonderful people who have owned their purpose from a very early age. They are the children of a generation that asked every imaginable question. That’s why they are looking for ‘purpose’ at work over other perceived benefits. How can we make our workplaces worthy of their aspirations? Yes, research does suggest that organizations with a powerful sense of purpose are more profitable, but is profit the purpose, and if it is, can it be compelling?

According to Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Professor of Business at Harvard Business School: “The architecture of change involves the design and construction of new patterns, or the reconceptualization of old ones, to make new, and hopefully more productive, actions possible.”

So back to the question: why do people join tribes? Is it strength in numbers? A sense of belonging? There are lots of complex social issues that drive this and lots written about it, but tribes, like humanity as a whole, need to evolve. They can only do this by listening to each other; listening for changes that reflect a shift in beliefs and values.

Then the tribe becomes something enviable, something that thinking, questioning, positive and confident people WANT to join, more than the sum of its parts. So how do we do this? The listening function is key. It’s the cornerstone. Without it, nothing else works. As communicators, what we communicate has to be part of that listening conversation. Less ‘tablets of stone’, more ‘talking stick’. Technology lets us do this quite easily, the challenge lies in getting leaders to ‘own it’, seeing beyond a 20th century ideal of ‘top down’ and taking pleasure in forging a new style of stewardship.

We can discover purpose by looking at the conversations we have. When broken down into levels of concern, purpose can emerge.

A group focused solely on lower level concerns over a long period of time will become disaffected. They will lose any sense of higher purpose.

Encouraging everyone to engage in frequent conversations about their higher level concerns, and demonstrating a commitment to listen to them will enable the tribe to have a vibrant and compelling sense of purpose. You can start this right now.

Take this simple graphic and begin a conversation with your teams. Ask them what their concerns are in these domains. Breakdowns may well flood out, and as you move higher up the pyramid, it gets more difficult.  From a communications perspective, however, it offers us something absolutely amazing: the possibility to shape the tribe.

A good tip is to ask people what they read. Understanding why people read what they read and do what they do is a window into the corporate soul. As a listening skill, it’s dazzling in its simplicity, but hugely powerful. It will shift over time, during periods of urgency or instability, what will the members of your tribe do? What will they pay attention to and what will they ignore? But, as an IC professional, if you are merely reporting to senior executives on what gets ‘traction’ and you aren’t shaping the message, you’re missing the biggest opportunity we have. The conversation comes ‘full circle’ and the organization becomes a tribe.

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