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Communication in School Tribal Cultures

Posted by Francis Vigeant on Feb 2, 2016

This post is the third post in a leadership series about the connection between the tribes that make up any school or district and the ability to make meaningful changes to create a next generation learning environment. The first post explored why understanding tribal leadership can help school leaders make the shift to the Next Generation Science Standards, and the second post explored the five tribes in the context of an educational environment.

One of the surprising discoveries that came from the research behind Tribal Leadership had to do with understanding language across stages. The researchers discovered that a tribe member can understand the language of other tribes only one stage above or below. For example, a tribe at Stage Three can understand the language of Stage Two and Four, but not One or Five. Here's an example:

Imagine someone who's speaking from a Stage Four tribe about its values. “We're the best. Look what we can do,” and so forth. That kind of language comes from a tribe that's self-aware.

A person from a Stage Two tribe hearing that won't understand the Stage Four values or language. It's too foreign and idealistic sounding. The Stage Two people might say, “All you say is great rainbows because I know there's no common planning time. My class is too large. My students can't do this. My parents aren't engaged. My system doesn't support its teachers. My principal isn’t present."

The “my life is bad” people cannot hear the “we are great” leader.

Attempting to have a conversation across multiple stages is “like shining a red light into a green filter,” the authors write. “No matter how much a person says it’s really red, it still looks green to the person on the other side of the lens.”

On the other hand, a person from a Stage Three tribe with the belief “I am great” can make a smaller mental leap to understand the Stage Four “We are great” mantra. Thus, the goal of moving an entire school to Stage Four requires careful use of language.

To communicate across stages, you have to use language at a level the person or tribe can hear. Leaders need to learn, understand and speak the language of each stage. For instance, counseling a Stage Two tribe member encourages them to begin thinking as a Stage Three person, transitioning their focus away from the lower stage and towards the higher level. Blogger Corinna Baldauf has provided a single-page PDF based on Logan's research that outlines how to counsel and use language at each stage.

Another thing the research revealed is that people cannot skip stages. They transition through them. They can transition through stages quickly, but they have to transition through each one.

Transitioning Your Tribe: Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Motivation

One's personal values are key to any study of motivation. There are intrinsic motivators and extrinsic motivators. Dr. Dan Ariely, a behavioral economist at Duke University, conducted studies on both. He found when people are motivated by intrinsic factors, they were four times more productive than when they were motivated extrinsically.

Having purpose and values, which are intrinsic (internalized), lead to greater productivity than carrot and stick extrinsic (external) factors. Examples of extrinsic motivators include student scores, performance pay, getting a promotion as a result of some action, and getting personal recognition when you know about it advance. Doing something in order to be recognized is an extrinsic motivator.

Intrinsic motivators are things we believe in and often equate to our purpose. For a teacher, an example of an intrinsic motivator might be making personal connections with others. Teachers often teach because they value the personal connections built with students. If that's a group value, then our actions should reflect that value.

Doing something that is contrary to that value should upset everybody, because it destroys personal connections and does not fit with the culture and the values of the group. Critical thinking, creative thinking, analytical thinking, student empowerment, and nurturing curiosity are all values we can believe in that infuse purpose and are intrinsic motivators.

 In one of Dr. Ariely's studies the subjects were paid to create small Lego creations. They were told, "We'll pay you $3 for every Lego creation you make.” People made Legos until they were told they would receive 10 cents less for each subsequent Lego built. Predictably, the subjects gradually stopped making Legos. Then, the experimenters said, “If you build more Legos, we'll give them away to children,” at which point the subjects once again began building Legos. They became willing to make more because they now had a sense of purpose. An intrinsic motivator was more powerful than the extrinsic reward of money.

Finally, the experimenters changed the rules again. They removed the promise to give the Lego to children and renewed the $3 reward for each Lego. However, as soon as a subject finished making a Lego creation, the experimenters took the Lego apart and returned the pieces to a pile even while the subject was making the next Lego.

They found that people's engagement dropped, even though they were being paid the same amount and the task was the same. The Legos had no purpose. By removing the purpose and making money a simple extrinsic motivator, people's output dropped dramatically.

Takeaway: It's important that your values are intrinsic, that you're motivated by things you believe in as a group, that you find commonality in value and purpose. That doesn't mean extrinsic things don't exist and can be ignored. But it means you don't rely on them to motivate you.

You need to ask yourself, as a leader and especially if you have a Stage Four tribe, to be sure these are the kind of questions you're communicating with your group. Overall, intrinsic motivators have to do with why you exist; why you do what you do and why those actions in some ways are better than alternatives. Ask yourself, what do you believe and value as a leader? If you don't know, or you think you know but you're not sure, it's okay. A lot of people have a gut sense but can't articulate it on the spot. It's important that you put time and effort into thinking that through for yourself first, so you can articulate that.

Then ask, does your team share those values? Once you ask yourself that question as a leader, are your values and what you believe at odds with your team? You need to start with the language that people can hear, and start around values.

What do people value? Find some common threads and begin building on it. Are the values extrinsic or intrinsic, and how do you and your team communicate these? Do you celebrate them? It's important to communicate and celebrate what you value. What we value most is most important. We need to rally around those things.

Leading Your Tribe to Higher Ground

A clear path forward for moving your tribe's culture to the next stage is found in just three basic steps.

  • First, you need to speak language that can be heard by your tribal members or by the tribes you are leading. If someone is at Stage Two level thinking, "My life stinks. My teaching stinks," and you are saying, "Wait, I'm a level 4 person, we can be great."—well, you might as well be on different channels on the radio.
  • Second, you need to extend your reach by shifting your language one level at a time. You can do it quickly, but you need to go level by level. If somebody is at “I”, you need to be shifting toward “we.”
  • Throughout the process, focus on identifying common values between your stage and that of the person being mentored.

This post was updated on May 3, 2018.

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Topics: Tribal Leadership, School Climate and Culture

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