Back in 2011 I wrote a post titled Single white female seeking a tribe, and it was about how I’ve been part of work teams that had a shared passion for what we were doing but I lost that when I became a consultant, working from home and traveling to different organizations on my own. I lamented that while it was rewarding to be part of the effort to help other work groups become tribes, there was a hole in my life where my own tribe used to be.
I realized recently that I have a tribe again. On one of the government contracts I’m delivering leadership training for, there are three of us that travel together as a team. Geoff is my colleague from the same consulting firm, and Joe is the training officer from the agency we’re delivering training for. When we first started last year, we would deliver the class and retire alone to our respective hotel rooms for the evening. Then we began to have lunch together. Then we began to have occasional dinners. Now we share cars from the airport, go out for happy hour and make adventurous ethnic dinner plans every night, and even share photos and personal stories via email when we’re off the road and back at our homes.
When I talk to team building class participants about how to turn a federation into a tribe, I tell them the most important thing is for the group to begin to care more about the goals of the team than about any individual goals or responsibilities they each may have. For us, that came about through something as simple and non-work-related as deciding where to have dinner every night. Two of us, Joe and I, love ethnic food and fine dining. One of us, Geoff, just wants a McDonald’s hamburger every night. Two of us, Geoff and Joe, will choose to go back to a restaurant based on the attractiveness of the server, while I couldn’t care less about that. One of us loves expensive fine scotches, one of us must have wine at every meal, and the third one will drink an occasional bear but can skip the alcohol altogether. There came a point when we not only began to sacrifice our own wants and needs for the good of the group, but even began to develop new tastes and new appreciations as a result. That was the moment when we became a tribe, and lest you think this is all touchy feeley irrelevant nonsense, I can tell you unequivocally that it impacted the quality of the training we delivered. We function more cohesively as a unit now, and we have stories to tell about our shared experiences that are often relevant to the training content. Participants comment that we work together like a well-oiled machine and it makes a difference to their class experience.
If you want to build a tribe, you have to give them time and space to get to know each other on a personal level. Only when they have built some trust and cohesion will they begin to give each other the benefit of the doubt when someone makes a mistake, and engage in the give-and-take that allows a diverse group of people with different work styles and preferences begin to function as one unit. Take a stand against managers who say team building and getting-to-know-you activities are a waste of time. In moderation, they are critical tools for improving team performance.