Last week I talked about how we need to learn how to see each other as human and put systems in place to break our patterns of tribalism in the workplace.
We’re so locked into old ideas about how we need everyone on our teams to fit into our corporate culture, that we filter out any possibility for new thinking or new perspectives. We stifle our ability to innovate as leaders, as teams and as organizations, because while we say we want diversity of thought we actually hire and reward conformity of thought.
This is a remnant from the age of standardization, when the business defined the individual and functioned best when we all just did what we were told in the box we were given. But that’s no longer a good strategy in our current age of personalization.
As I’ve said before, I have been part of and worked with some of the largest organizations in the world across almost every industry from health care to automotive from big-box retail to banking. I have heard what people are thinking but not saying to their leaders: we have been conditioned to operate in environments that standardized our identities and now we want those identities back. But corporate values and mission statements never account for the mass variations of this need for individuality and inclusion
To turn that around, recognize this profound truth:
“We are not thinking machines that feel, we are feeling machines that think.”
That’s a quote from Thomas Damasio, a neuroscientist, and it exactly explains the difference between leadership in the age of standardization and leadership in the age of personalization. In the standardization mindset, we’re actually working against our nature: we become thinking machines, conditioned to hide our emotions and personal feelings.
When we do speak up individually—in big or small ways—we often get shut down and don’t feel safe to do so again. Who among us has not felt beaten down by work and life—and hid that from the boss for fear of being judged, appearing weak, or getting fired?
In the age of personalization, we understand that our emotions and the feelings they produce rule our behavior and are what make us human beings. And their value is getting harder to deny.
I often read stories about companies looking for people who have what we often call “soft” skills. People who know the value of a handshake—one of the most important ways to establish trust between people. People who care about their relationships with their customers and can talk with others both casually and about matters of importance—not just focus on the transaction. People who can look at data and analytics from all sides and different perspectives—and be curious.
Most of us have been trained for the opposite of those things: “hard” skills that are specific, teachable, and measurable. Soft skills are more variable, especially those human skills that create feelings in others and draw them in. They are difficult to teach, control, automate, assimilate, and measure. Thus, they are misunderstood and often devalued.
But know this: Our feelings are powerful and hard to ignore. They can inspire us to collective and collaborative action that crosses all boundaries and allows us to let go of the status quo—or they can make us hold on tighter.
Emotions can also be manipulated to divide us as much as they unite us. It’s not news to say that politicians, pundits, and anyone else who sways our emotions can manipulate our feelings and thus dictate our actions and beliefs.
On the one hand, it’s nice to feel inspired by leaders who make us feel good about who we are and what we’re doing. On the other hand, when those leaders make us feel that others are the source of our problems and threaten our safety, status, beliefs, and identities, this becomes a problem. When that happens, instead of accepting responsibility in whole or in part for our circumstances and actions, or allowing for different perspectives, we unite with others who share the same points of view and reject, blame, and/or attack others.
We call this tribal behavior or tribalism: the exclusion of—and often contempt for—others who do not conform to the tribe and the way “we” identify. And if you think that sounds a lot like leadership in the age of standardization, in which the business, its brand, and mission define the individual, you’re right.
Today’s political landscape and America itself seem to be locked in a fierce tribalism of identity politics, in a search to reinforce or reclaim status that comes from a scarcity mindset (nothing is ever enough, so for me to win, you have to lose).
This has perpetuated a rush to take sides, judge each other, and intentionally to provoke blame and hatred, things at the very core of treating others as less than human. Business leaders can and must act differently, even if our politicians cannot. Leaders can have an abundance mindset that is win-win for all. But not if they remain siloed and status driven.
Finding “your people” can be a good thing. I understand the impulse for people to find the influence they’ve been denied by uniting around an identity, whether internally (through an employee resource group) or externally (founding an all-woman tech firm, an all-black dance troupe, or an all-Hispanic investment firm).
But that doesn’t mean they are immune to the mistakes of tribal thinking or that their efforts lead to inclusion. They’ve just removed one factor. They can still lack inclusivity and create the tribal behavior that undermines leadership in the age of personalization—no matter how strong or well-meaning an initiative is. The question for them and for all of us is: Where do the tribal lines stop being drawn and the human connections to all people start again? When do we stop making others check boxes?
Tribal thinking tends to get smaller and smaller—sometimes right down to a single issue that is so important we discount anything about it that bothers us. We see this in politics all the time: People vote for candidates whose position on a polarizing issue aligns with theirs and ignore broader character or even criminal issues. People are willing to believe the worst stories about a candidate on the other side—often through negative stories that have no foundation in fact—because that person does not conform to their norm.
We also see this with customers and brands in business. According to a Cone Communications CSR Study, 78 percent of Americans want companies to address important social justice issues, and 87 percent will purchase a product because a company advocates for an issue they care about. But does that mean you should only patronize brands that share your values, regardless of what they sell? Should gun rights advocates who love tents boycott Dick’s Sporting Goods because the chain pulled guns from some store shelves? Should LGBTQ people who love a chicken sandwich boycott Chick-fil-A because of the company’s stance on gay marriage? Should women not watch CBS after hearing about allegations against Les Moonves?
I can’t answer that.
What I can ask is: Whose values are you living: yours as an individual, or yours as defined by your tribe? And how are you seeing and treating those on the other side, or who work for the brands that don’t represent your values? Sure, a boycott can impact the bottom line, but what about a relationship that might change minds stuck on the other side of the story?
I’ll repeat it one more time: Where do we stop drawing that tribal line?
How do we pull ourselves out of this standardization trap and let go? We acknowledge our own feelings and the feelings of others.
Start by asking yourself: who do you have a reflexively negative reaction to? It doesn’t have to be a specific person, it can be a broad category: leadership, line employees, finance, HR, liberals, conservatives. You get the idea.
Now, do you actively engage with anyone from that group? Or do you avoid people from that group whenever possible? Take an honest inventory of your own habits and actions. If I went to the people you lead and asked them if they noticed whether you have a reflexive negative reaction to any group of people, what would they say? You may think you hide it well, but you probably don’t.
Consider whether this reflexive reaction on your part, and the possibility that it is obvious to others, has affected how other people act around you or their willingness to speak up and share ideas and even just be themselves.
If everyone took an honest look at themselves in this way, that would be a huge step toward leading in the age of personalization. Take the following assessment to identify how prepared you are to lead in the age of personalization.
Next week I’ll talk about one such broad category that seems to be universally mocked and dismissed: Millennials and Gen Z.