How To Give Your Employees a Sense of Tribe in a Remote-Based World
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As companies have gotten bigger, and as more businesses offer more options in global markets, people have responded by demanding transparency from the organizations they patronize and work for. At the same time, remote work has exploded, accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Through all this, one thing has not changed -- the natural psychological need people have for a sense of belonging. They want to know they have a tribe and a place to look for cues about what to do. And as people move out of the office to work digitally from anywhere with anyone, loyalty to specific employers isn’t as strong as it used to be. People are looking for a sense of community and family not from a single business but from their professional network as a whole.
In this environment, your new task is to find ways to deliver a sense of tribe to your team no matter where they’re working so that they stay with you. Doing this well will allow you to keep morale and productivity high while ensuring good retention that protects your bottom line.
Where do people get a sense of tribal belonging?
The sense of tribal belonging usually comes from four key sources:
A shared purpose
A unique contribution towards that purpose
Pride in what they do and leave as a legacy
Gratitude for what others in the tribe have offered
If people are going to feel like they belong to your team, then you must address each of the above areas.
1. Sense of purpose
Everybody understands "purpose" when we're talking about a grand cause. But what if your organization's role is not to eradicate diseases, fight poverty or clean the oceans? Purpose can be found in the smallest of things. It's why we do what we do every day. In a B2B context, it might just be to achieve your clients' business goals. It might be to solve a given problem in the industry. Whatever the purpose is, it makes the team raise their heads high and see the horizon.
In our day-to-day routine and the work-from-anywhere environment, it's easy to forget that purpose can come from more minute ways of serving. So, whatever purpose your team might claim, take every opportunity to expose them to that vision and reinforce it. Even better, let them co-create it and own it. The conversation changes completely when the team sets its own purpose. Ownership also usually means that teams consistently keep their purpose at the front of the discussions they have.
We've seen this effect many times in our own strategy sessions or when we run a discovery session with a client to make sure everyone is aligned on what we need to achieve. In both cases, people are crafting the vision themselves. The engagement and commitment of team members from different backgrounds and opinions are leveled up to the highest point. It's a tribe in formation.
Purpose doesn't need to be perennial. It can, and perhaps should, be renewed constantly.
2. Unique contribution
If purpose says "why," then a tribe also wants to feel that how they go about achieving that purpose is, in certain ways, unique. It's the mark of the tribe and what differentiates them from other tribes. There's an aspect of authorship here that fulfills people's desire to feel special.
This sense of authorship is directly connected to what you're offering to the market, but it's not only that. How the company operates internally could also bring a lot of "uniqueness" -- how leaders relate to employees, the management philosophies, how they engage in communications, the autonomy of teams, how the company deals with diversity, equity and inclusion, and how it sees its role in society at large can all contribute to this. No matter what combination of contributing factors you might have, the more you hear people pointing out how “weird” the company is in a positive way, or the more you hear "this could only have happened here," the more likely it is that there’s a strong sense of tribe brewing.
Everyone wants to feel proud of their achievements and the mark they're leaving on the world. Knowing they are contributing to something uniquely valuable, as described above, is half of it. But they need to feel that their individual contribution was important, as well. People will generally have an intrinsic sense of pride based on their own self-awareness, and allowing them to show that pride goes a long way.
Demonstrating pride is not necessarily bragging or self-promoting. You may feel proud even if somebody else is speaking of the achievements of your team. One experiment we did internally, for example, was to create room for each team to tell their "Powerful Stories" in short videos published at the CI&T University. These were available to every employee and included client testimonials. The narrative always started with the intended business goals and ended with the outcomes, and the story in between was always very rich. These videos helped to promote learning across different parts of the organization, and at the same time, instilled a sense of pride. Communicating your story, or allowing others to communicate theirs, can build pride with those in your business in the same way.
As you offer rewards for people's achievements, provide consistent updates to show the real-world influence their work is directly or indirectly having. Praising the interactions involved in achieving the final result will ensure that everyone understands the collective effort involved, has a full sense of their role and knows that they can collaborate instead of going it alone.
People can feel grateful for what is beyond expectations, outside the norm, or simply out of the blue. It's the "we have your back" feeling, which is put to proof in times of need. The past 12 months, in particular, have given an exceptionally high number of opportunities to test whether we can count on others. Gratitude is also multi-directional: you may feel grateful for something your leader has done, your peers or people on your team.
In my experience, gratitude doesn't come from major game-changing, heroic acts. It comes from small, unexpected, and absolutely sincere acts, most often from one-on-one relationships. You can't forge gratitude. The best you can do is to create a truly collaborative environment where people genuinely care about each other and feel safe to offer their own personal help to others.
Personal ties and gratitude solidify each other. When somebody expresses gratitude, it reinforces a sense of pride within the other person and creates memorable moments, even if they have never met in person.
Speaking from my own experience, the times that I recall as meaningful and that I am most proud of are the ones where somebody came to me and thanked me for something I said or did that was important to them in some way. They’re never planned, and I never anticipate that I’ll have such an influence. In fact, I wouldn’t know I had that much of an effect if those people didn’t spontaneously come back to tell me. It’s this random expression of how I made a difference that makes the interaction so memorable. All of this can happen only in an environment where it is safe to be vulnerable and to lend a hand.
Behavioral science has shown over and over again that helping others benefits both the helper and the recipient. If team members are doing that for each other, then they will really feel they belong in the tribe.
If your employees are your people, then prove it to them
Today’s environment makes it more likely that people will look for their sense of belonging outside of your business and feel less loyal. But you can give them the sense of tribe they’re looking for if you proactively focus on purpose, unique contribution, pride and gratitude. Cover these four bases consistently to keep your company stable and competitive.