Tribal instinct and engagement

Change fascinates me – partly because there are so many variables, and partly because there is so much psychology at play.

There is much out there to read on the subject – from bite-size ‘how to’ guides to full blown psychological research papers. There are reams and reams of theory – most having merit in their own right. And there is a consistency across all of the information out there, and it isn’t rocket science. It is simply that, regardless of whether you are implementing a scheme to reduce office waste or completing a global transformation programme, you need to take the affected people with you.

We already know that for change to be successful we must engage – it’s obvious, isn’t it? But, for me, there is a more compelling reason why this advice pops up so frequently. Not only is it a fundamental truth, but it is something that we – whether that ‘we’ is individuals or organisations – are inherently poor at.

Why is this? Is there something in play here about organisations, projects, or individuals that leads us to underplay the importance of something essential to bringing about effective change. What is the psychology behind lack of engagement?

You could of course apply some common sense here and come up with a few answers – ‘we don’t have time to engage with everyone affected’, ‘we’re the management team and we know best’, ‘people just want to be told what to do’. There are strong elements of power play at work here both in relation to affected employees and trade unions/ consultative bodies – ‘we aren’t going to give you the opportunity to undermine what we’re planning to do by telling you about it’. And from the employee point of view – ‘we like the comfort of being able to complain that we aren’t being engaged’, ‘if I tell you what I think you’ll only ignore it and do what you want’. And so on….

I came across an article recently (link below) on a site which describes itself as ‘hosting the conversations on faith’. Sitting somewhere on the continuum between atheist and agnostic it’s an unusual source for me – but it wasn’t an article about religion as such. It focussed on understanding how human nature can hinder discussions about faith. Much of it struck a chord with me in relation to change and engagement.

The title of the article (link below – the list below in italics is taken from this article) is ‘6 reasons why we don’t engage in dialogue’ and the reasons listed translate perfectly to workplace dynamics and engagement at the individual and organisational level:

  1. Attacking those outside our ‘tribe’ reinforces in-group feelings
  2. Conflict is a stronger motivator than consensus
  3. Dialogue requires us to be ok with a lack of resolution
  4. It requires us to listen at least as much as we talk
  5. We have to reject the zero-sum game of persuasion – open dialogue gives the potential for there to be no winners of a debate
  6. We don’t think it’s our responsibility – we shy away from having difficult or confrontational conversations.

The items that draw me in here are the interplay between our tribal instinct, and the idea of conflict as a motivator. The above list can be read as being negative, and certainly would start to explain why few organisations are really great at facilitating dialogue and engagement. However all of these elements can be flipped to give a positive outcome given recognition of their existence and a conscious focus on resolution.  We shouldn’t beat ourselves up about something fundamental to our shared human nature and so strongly connected with our natural tribal heritage. Our own unique and individual set of tribes are important – whether religious, familial, political, social or organisational. We do however need to recognise tribalism as a potential barrier to change, see how tribes give us an excuse to choose to be blinkered and respect their impact when planning organisational change.

It would be too simplistic, and too idealistic, to assume that engagement to bring everyone together and break down those tribal lines would automatically lead to a positive outcome – whether those tribes are hierarchical, functional or social. That smacks of wanting everyone to think the same, never a strong driver of progress. Indeed, the second point above gives an intrinsic reason not to – conflict enhances motivation, and therefore, by definition, enhances achievement.

Purely from an evolutionary point of view, human development is driven by need, conflict and competition – these are precisely the factors that have taken us well beyond simply sitting at the top of the food chain, so why rail against it? Could the key to change engagement be to harness that innate interplay between tribes and conflict – through a change agent who understands the risks and opportunities that human nature gives us, and facilitates a culture where competition and debate is safe and encouraged, and thereby leverages the motivation and learning offered by tribal conflict to achieve sustainable change.

Its all too easy to pay lip service to change engagement by implementing a process which theoretically allows people to have their say, but doesn’t actually engage them to do so, and then wondering why they aren’t bought in, and even blaming our people for not being engaged. Rather than the process shaping the people, and feeding the opportunity not to engage, we should be leveraging human nature and enabling people to shape the process. Lets make engagement engaging.

If you’ve read this far then please do humour me…. Engage – tell me what you think. Disagree if you like – it will serve to motivate me!

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