Tribal Immunities

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When an organism detects the presence of a foreign body, its immunity system kicks in to destroy the invaders. When the human body becomes infected with a virus or bacteria, a healthy immune system dispatches a variety of white blood cells to attack the threat. Most notably, B-cell lymphocytes attack external threats (viruses, bacteria, etc), while T-cell lymphocytes defend against the body’s own cells that have been corrupted and become a threat themselves (as is the case with cancer, for example). In severe cases, the pathological threat can corrupt the immune system itself, turning the system designed to defend health into the very delivery vehicle of the illness itself.

Organizations are not unlike organisms: the culture of the former works in much the same way as the immunity system of the latter. In his best-selling book Give and Take, Adam Grant discusses three basic types of people: Givers, Takers, and Matchers. While the bulk of the organizational bell curve is made up of Matchers, it is the  influence of the Givers and Takers that determine the type of culture an organization will have. Just as with a biological immunity system, the nature of an organization’s culture will repel those types of people who are a threat to the system. When Giving behavior is the norm and rewarded, Takers become isolated and uncomfortable, eventually leaving one way or the other. Conversely, when Taking (defined as a narrowly focused self-interested mindset) is allowed to flourish, the behavior metastasizes throughout the organization. Takers replicate throughout the team, as the Matchers begin to mirror the behavior that gets rewarded (whether overtly or implicitly), much the same way that multiple myeloma cells convert immune system cells into cancer-defending cells. In this scenario, Givers will leave when it becomes apparent that their way of operating is no longer protected by the organization’s culture.

This same dynamic plays out with other behavioral qualities and organizational culture. Whether a small business or a large multi-national corporation, every organization needs a contingent of entrepreneurs within it to keep it growing and innovating. These are the people, regardless of title, rank, or authority, who are The Believers: they give everything they have towards the mission of the organization because they believe it in most strongly. They take risks, speak up, work late, double down, and help out whenever there is a need for it. These people are the opposite of The Apathetics: the check collectors, box checkers, paper pushers, get by’ers, do just enough’ers. In between these two extremes exist the larger group of Effort Matchers: people who will mirror the belief, effort, and risk taking of the dominant culture around them.

Make no mistake: it is much easier to manage a group of Apathetics and Matchers: they will do what they’re told, produce what is asked, and though they may be unhappy, will not make a Leader’s life difficult by complaining about it. The Believers, on the other hand, can be a handful to manage. Their energy can set the curtains on fire as often as they ignite a new insight. They may challenge the decisions of their leaders, and openly voice discontent with the state of affairs as they see it. Yet, despite their ability to be a pain, what separates these management handfuls from the true Cynics (Apathetics that have mutated into open hostility, negativity, and destructive behaviors) is their motivation: to always make the organization better. 

As with Givers and Takers, the organization’s culture works as an immunity system, isolating and ultimately ejecting those who do not conform. If the culture rewards the entrepreneurial risk taking and sacred cow slaying of The Believers, the resulting environment of high expectations and self-generated engagement will become intolerable for Apathetics. At some point, their “head-down, survive through anonymity” approach will cause them to leave, either for failing to keep up or for invariably sticking out in the wrong way. Conversely, if that type of work is not only allowed but tacitly encouraged through the unwritten rules and informal punishments and rewards that exist in any human organization, it will be the entrepreneurial Believers who will become the disease to the tribe’s cultural immunity system. In the words of Dave Ramsey delivered to leaders attending any of his EntreLeadership training events describing the necessary risk of having entrepreneurial Believers:

If you break their heart, they will leave.

As a Leader, understand the culture you are fostering, the organizational immunity system you are creating, and the types of behaviors that are protected and repelled by them both. Ultimately, both the disease and the cure begin with You.