Have you ever sensed that, when it comes to getting humans to work together effectively, many “innovative” HR solutions do nothing but imperfectly reinvent the wheel?
If so, you’re in good company. Garry Ridge is president and CEO of WD-40 Company. My passion is workplace culture building, and I interviewed Gary about how he transformed WD-40 into a global brand through getting back to basics about human behavior and culture.
For Garry, a native Australian, “getting back to basics” meant studying tribal cultures. Specifically, he researched the culture of Australian Aboriginals: at 50,000 years old, the most resilient culture in the world.
Through studying the Aboriginal cultural masters, Garry learned game changing insights that helped him build a tribal-inspired culture and propel WD-40 Company to international success. Among many insights, here are the three most profound:
More than Anything Else, Tribes Value Identity and Belonging
Tribal cultures are based on shared values and common goals. They’re organized around a handful of values that, to a person, are understood, shared, and celebrated. To Australian Aboriginals, the most important of these values is remembering who they are. In other words, their identity.
When the need to belong trumps every other need within the group, group members behave with one another in ways that support belonging. That is, when people need and want the tribe to survive and thrive, they act in ways that ensure the tribe will survive and thrive.
Individual advancement isn’t allowed to override the tribe’s collective advancement. Individual desire is prevented from undermining collective vision. Individual discomfort is tolerated to enable strategic collective sacrifice.
Australian Aboriginals have outlasted every other indigenous culture in the world because they value their identity as Australian Aboriginals, and are willing to do what it takes to keep that identity powerful and relevant. Their cultural pride is self-generating and self-reinforcing.
At WD-40 Company, the tribe comes first.
Can you say that about your organization? How strong is your collective pride in who you are and what your organization is here to achieve?
Tribes Value Learning and Teaching the Right Things
Aboriginals perceive mistakes and failures as opportunities to learn and adapt. Indeed, they must have this perspective. If they didn’t continuously “improve,” their tribe and their culture would not survive.
The trick here is in what they improve. Or, more accurately, in what they know better than to mess around with.
They don’t mess around with their core beliefs and values. Those are the right principles for tribal harmony and success.
For instance, land is the centerpiece of Aboriginal spirituality and livelihood. For the last 50,000 years, they’ve stayed focused on preserving their land and living in ecological harmony with it.
In addition, they’ve maintained complex kinship systems that put everyone in special relationship to one another and to the specific lands on which they live. They feel a kinship to every living thing in their environment. To outsiders, this aspect of Aboriginal culture is bewildering; a cultural relic seemingly ripe for streamlining. But to Aboriginals, it’s been a key element of their survival.
What do they focus on improving? Tools and technology. Strategies that help them sustain their vibrant tribal identity while interfacing effectively with the outside world.
This wisdom of knowing when improve and when to leave well enough alone is hard to acquire—especially in an era when the pressure to improve can stifle thoughtful, nuanced dialogue around improvement.
People who manage other people would be well served to ask, “Are we updating the tools and technology through which our critical work gets done, or inadvertently changing the quality and meaning of the work itself?”
When the work itself inadvertently gets changed through continual “improvements,” core cultural values can be trampled on and cultural health can be put at risk.
At WD-40 Company, no one makes mistakes—they have “learning moments”! And every tribe member accepts the responsibility to share their learnings so that peers don’t experience that learning moment again—they experience new ones.
Values Drive Tribes to Band Together During Stressful Times
What happens in your organization when something stressful happens? Does everyone pull together, dig in, and leave it all on the field to co-create a viable solution? Or, do people fracture into the subgroups in which they feel most comfortable and safe?
You can be honest. It’s rare to find a culture in which stressful situations don’t facilitate individual survival and division. Stress and fear cause people to operate from their base emotions.
There is only one force on earth powerful enough to transform emotionally driven behavior to behavior that is altruistic and service-oriented: core values. What people think is most important in life. What, if it came right down to it, they cannot live a quality life without.
Aboriginals have endured tremendous stress and statistically improbable odds. They’ve endured longer than any other culture on the planet. They may outlast us all. The vehicle of their survival?
Organization around a handful of values that, to a person, are understood, shared, and celebrated.
At WD-40 Company, values are the heart and soul of the company. Tribe members align to the values because it helps everyone succeed, thrive, and grow, while they create positive lasting memories—powerful relationships with peers, partners, and customers.
What core values are at play in your organization? Even if you don’t know what they are, at this moment they’re there, and they’re doing either harm or good.
You don’t need to reinvent the wheel to become a resilient, high-functioning team. Take a step to take stock of your organization’s values, and then, using an organizational constitution, build your own tribal-inspired culture, where everyone is treated with trust, respect, and dignity in every interaction.
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