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Corporate Tribes – Jitske Kramer

July 20, 2021

Today, corporate culture is very important – it affects job satisfaction, and therefore the productivity of employees. The phenomenon of corporate culture is viewed from different angles – for example, from the side of anthropology. Why do we need “campfire conversations” to become an integral part of the company, why the company is a new “tribe” and what does it have to do with QA – in our article.

Jitske Kramer is a Dutch anthropologist who has been researching corporate culture for many years. In her studies, she draws numerous parallels between traditional Tribes and modern corporate cultures. In her own words, she calls them, ’Corporate Tribes’. 

This article is dedicated to the ideas Kramer discusses in her speech, which she gave at the Agile Leadership Conference in Europe in 2019. The full version of the video can be watched here.

What is Corporate Culture and how can it be created/improved? 

To begin, corporate culture is a set of beliefs and behaviours a company, and its employees, have that determine how everyone interacts and works together. 

In her speech Kramer claims that “People shape cultures and cultures shape people.” In brief, the way people act and behave creates their workplace culture, while at the same time, the culture at work reinforces the behaviours and feelings of the employees. 

Kramer thinks that all companies should hold metaphorical campfires, where every individual can go and chat and share their ideas and thoughts with each other. This type of setting is perfect for sharing ideas, reflecting on goals, and ultimately showing love to one and other, no matter how different we all are. And in the end it improves corporate culture. 

This kind of inclusive culture is one of the best and safest environments and cultures for employees to be in. Kramer goes on to note that the ‘campfire’ idea is also a neutral place, where there is no judgement, just equality and companionship. In fact, these ideas are very Tribal in origin, as this is how they would have behaved in their communities – read more on this below. 

What similarities do Tribes and modern corporations have?

In her speech Kramer draws attention to how historical Tribes and modern-day corporations need to behave in a similar way, so that a corporate culture can be created. 

Many years ago people would’ve formed Tribes. These Tribes were strong communities of people who lived together, and they were strong because they had good communication with each other. Tribes were usually seen as one, they had one language, there was continuity, they had strong ties with each other, loyalty was paramount, and knowledge was shared around. 

Today, this is what we all strive towards having in corporations. 

Employees want to feel as one, they want to feel like they all speak the same language, and that their corporation is strong. 

However, while Tribes were good at setting very clear boundaries, modern corporations have ad hoc boundaries. Their employees also find trusting difficult, most companies are multilingual, you could be working across corporations, and there may be several ranking systems and systems in general to deal with. So, very unlike the Tribes that were described above.

However, we still have our tribal instincts within us, but, we aren’t able to satisfy our basic instincts because of our modern workstyle, so we need to work together to try and form a culture. This can be done simply by using the campfire method – more on this later. 

How to create a good corporate culture?

Here are some points to consider before trying to set up a culture at work, as noted by Kramer.

To create a good corporate culture you must be prepared to see everyone as equal. This means that everyone can have their own opinion and ideas, and these opinions and ideas are actually listened to by all. 

Additionally, it's about accepting that we are all the same, yet we are all different.

Moreover, a corporate culture should be something that everyone agrees on, and everyone should follow the norms of the culture. 

Further to this, it's important to accept that when everyone gets their chance to talk there will be ambiguity and uncertainty. But it's about learning to be okay with this. 

In doing all of this you will come to learn that you deal with conflict. And that you can learn to deal with conflict in a good way. Corporate culture is about taking all the things mentioned above and turning them into positives, so where there were issues before, they are no longer present. 

How can you do this well? Hold campfires, not literally, you can do your own version. But get everyone into the campfire mode, get people engaged and talking, share stories, discuss goals, and don’t make it a 5 minute rushed meeting. 

We want inclusiveness at work. Which means that we want to be a part of the interaction and decision-making process — this is core when building a culture. Not everyone wants this because it can cause conflict, but the truth is, if we don’t have someone on a team who disagrees with what’s being said, then there isn’t any innovation. So, the company is stagnant. 

Strong corporate cultures are fine with diversity and are ready for change. So it's imperative that the corporate cultures of the future are built using century old human wisdom, according to Kramer.

Let’s check out Kramer’s ‘campfire’ idea in more detail. 

Campfire Conversations

One idea that Kramer has is that all corporations should engage in ‘campfires’. 

Campfires are where communities from years and years ago would've gone to gather around. Here they would talk, share problems, play games, find solutions to issues, cook, discuss the future, and consider the past. 

Historically, campfires were a significant part of a culture and community, which is why this idea needs to be passed on to modern day corporations. For example, Tribes built these cozy and intimate places, so people could go to look out for one another. And different people would come together to have conversations by the campfire. 

Companies today are made up of different people who have different views. And the most important thing today is to give everyone an opportunity to say what they think. Some things cannot be said at bullet-point meetings, yet they could be discussed in a calm and neutral environment. 

If you don’t have ‘campfires’, employees will start to get annoyed and will start to gossip, which is basically creating a negative corporate culture. 

Modern companies need to sit by a ‘campfire’, and allow everyone to speak freely without being afraid of the consequences. 

Ultimately, having campfires can be scary because you’re actively inviting new opinions into the decision making process. But, this change can be a blessing and it's worth listening to everyone. 

Where does leadership fit into corporate culture?

Kramer also has her own ideas on leadership too. This is what she thinks.

Traditionally, leaders were treated like kings, and there is nothing wrong with this hierarchical style. But, inclusive leadership is the key to success. Power should be balanced with love, and trust connects it all. 

We also need a new type of leader – a liminal leader. They’re the shamans of the world, and they help us to go through change. It’s a significant role. 

When a new culture is being created you cannot just jump from A to B, it has to be a slow transition. This is where a Liminal leader is vital. 

Think about it this way, the Chief, for example, is the one who makes sure that things keep on going, whereas Liminal leaders are responsible for liminal spaces. They hold the soul of the tribe. We cannot go from one change to another, because there’ll always be the space between the two changes – Liminal leaders will guide us through these times of uncertainty and the unknown. 

Tribal guilty pleasures

Another idea of Kramers is that we all have echoes of tribal behavior in the industrial world, and these are referred to as “tribal guilty pleasures”. No matter how much we talk about noble corporate values, equality, justice and caring about climate change, people simply can’t abandon the norms that have been with them for the last 50,000-60,000 years.

Kramer singles out 7 tribal guilty pleasures. They’re guilty because we think that we shouldn’t have them.

- The need for a charismatic leader;

- Ego;

- Own ideas and privileges;

- Belonging, clans, and symbols;

- Clarity, avoiding failure, and routine;

- Rebellious, too much harmony is boring;

- Passion, intimacy, sex — you want to work with someone who clicks. 

Tips on Becoming Part of the Corporate Tribe

So, here you are a newcomer to the team. Everyone seems to be polite, welcoming, and friendly towards you, yet there is still that distance between you all. Since you are new, you don’t have any past to share with the team, it’s more difficult to make a joke, not to mention the general stress of getting a new job in a new place. 

Becoming one of the Tribe is not entirely your job, because the company is also interested in helping you to adjust to their ways of thinking. 

The ‘campfire’ mentioned above can help. You will feel more relaxed, you’ll laugh with your colleagues,  you’ll say stories, and you’ll get to know the team better. 

But, don’t be too pushy, don’t be snobbish, and don’t boast with your new team. Be yourself, be active, be confident, and make friends. 

This is the typical advice found on websites when you look at how to tackle your first day at work. Although what’s mentioned above does make sense, in reality things don’t go as planned. The points noted above are hard to follow because you might not feel all that confident on your first day, plus, you don’t know what has happened in the work space recently. 

Here are some tips to “break the ice” faster with new colleagues and to get into the culture:

  • Try to be friendly and sociable;
  • Don’t be late;
  • Plan what you’re going to wear on your first day;
  • Keep calm;
  • Try to get to the heart of the matter ASAP, pay attention to both formal and informal rules;
  • Memorize names;
  • Don’t gossip;
  • Share a meal with colleagues (or at least have coffee together) — it’s one of the greatest and easiest ways to build rapport;
  • Do the tasks you’ve been given well.

Communication and corporate culture today

Remember that soft skills are of great value nowadays, and testers are not an exception. The “new normal” we live in has changed everything, and we all have to get used to remote work. Yet, this doesn’t mean that corporate culture gets dropped, we are still part of a team. And things will change and we will be back in our offices soon. 

Here are a few tips to help you adjusts to the new normal, and to maintain corporate culture:

  • Ask for help is you feel that you need it — there is nothing wrong with this;
  • Come up with a virtual handshake;
  • Keep eye contact when on video chat;
  • Talk to a group of people as if you were talking to them in person;
  • Speak in a way that makes people want to listen to you; 
  • Actively listen when people speak to you;
  • Listen more than you talk;
  • Don’t answer a question with a question;
  • Don’t finish sentences for other people;
  • Try to rephrase the other person’s point to make sure you get it right;
  • Ask questions;
  • Never interrupt;
  • Mind your body language;
  • Be careful with social media — make sure that there is nothing there that can lead to a conflict;
  • Pay attention to all your fellow-workers, make no exclusions;
  • Observe traditions — as soon as you find out what rituals are common in your new company, follow them;
  • Offer a treat to your colleagues.

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