Water cooler talk keeps organizational culture real

August 13, 2008

It is a ritual in offices around the country: the morning meet-up. Although employees may have already clocked in and should theoretically be hard at work, they meander over to the coffee pot, fill up a cup and kibitz. Although they may have arrived at 8:30, they don't boot up their computers until 9:00. In many managers' eyes, such behavior is often filed under the heading of wasted time on the company's dime. "You're here to work. If you want to socialize, do it on your own time!" they might say.

Yet, the irony of the situation, says W. P. Carey management Professor Blake Ashforth, is that these social butterflies may very well be adding value to the company. Rather than being grumbled about, such office klatches should be nurtured and encouraged.

The tribe goes to work

It is an idea that Ashforth advances under the banner of "tribalism" in a chapter he authored for the forthcoming SAGE "Handbook of New Approaches in Management and Organization."

After all, says Ashforth, a pack of paralegals or a covey of consultants drinking java or hanging about the proverbial water cooler is not so different from a tribe of Neolithic hunters sitting around a campfire. We as a species have come a long way since the days when the morning commute meant braving saber-tooth tigers but, at our core, people are still very much the same social animals we've always been. We want to feel like we belong and we value our closest connections beyond people we don't know.

In a very real sense, organizations big and small would benefit by seeing themselves framed by a variation of Former U.S. House Speaker Thomas (Tip) O'Neill Jr.'s maxim, "All politics is local." People care about the big issues, but place a very large importance on whether the potholes on their street are fixed and if there are jobs to be had in their town. So it is with organizational culture: The big issues matter but employees are most likely to judge an organization by their most local contacts -- their boss and immediate coworkers.

Ashforth says an organization's success is largely linked to its smallest social units, the tribes who congregate around the coffee maker

"Our argument is that all of that higher order stuff [strategy, mission, etc.] gets translated, made real, by what happens at the local level, so the organization is a distal influence; it's out there, it's important but it is distal," says Ashforth. "It gets the train engine going, but once that engine is in motion, it's what happens in your particular car that makes it real."

Ashforth gives the not-uncommon example of an employee who loves the larger corporate culture and mission of his employer but hates his job because of his tribe (i.e. his manager and/or coworkers) or the employee who loves her job because of those immediately around her despite the organization as a whole being miserable. In these cases, the facets of company health that one might assume would keep people in their jobs -- financial fundamentals and the company's resultant share price, product offerings, sales pipeline and overall mission -- are secondary concerns that don't necessarily trump how employees feel about their situations.

"People construe the organization through how they're treated at the tribal level so if your tribe isn't functioning well, the rest doesn't matter," says Ashforth.

The value of a shared fire

Back in primordial times, a hunter would be more likely to risk his life to save someone from a rampaging mastodon if that imperiled soul were a fellow tribesman and not a stranger. So it is today: People work better together when they know one another on a personal level. It might not be tusks and spears but rather lending an extra hour or two to a coworker who is overwhelmed by home and work pressures.

Of course, to lend that helping hand, one would have to know that a coworker was indeed stretched too thin. Although Ashforth notes that work and home increasingly blend together in an always-on business climate, he notes that there is still organizational pressure to keep one's home life from interfering with one's work life. Yet, knowing coworkers' hobbies and passions, what sports their kids play and if they're caring for a sick parent is precisely what Ashforth says builds bonds that strengthen corporate groups.

"When you come to know people on a personal level, you're far more likely to give them the benefit of the doubt and to have goodwill in your dealings. And that's a tremendous buffer against the itches and pains of everyday life in organizations," he says.

Further, with flextime, telecommuting, extensive business travel and virtual teams, organizations' employees can easily lose their sense of belonging to a small group (and consequently the larger company) because they are not in regular contact with their coworkers. In these cases, managers must work extra hard to make up for the loss in face-time (or coffee breaks) that don't occur because employees are separated by miles if not continents. Ashforth says that some professions in which it is difficult for coworkers to bond during work hours (such as police officers, who often spend the whole day in the company of a single partner) have bridged the tribal gap by building community after-hours -- perhaps at the local watering hole.

Although it is not necessarily a silver bullet, Ashforth says that technology can bolster all-important personal relationships with dispersed teams. A recent survey by Challenger, Gray & Christmas found that nearly one in four companies blocks employees' access to web sites like Facebook and MySpace, believing them to be a productivity killer. However, Ashforth says that social networking sites that transmit personal information and nurture casual and candid rapport can be an important ingredient in building links between coworkers. This is especially true for employees who do not work down the hall from each other.

Becoming a tribal leader

Of course, employees who care about their organization are better for the organization. They are more likely to work harder, be more invested in a company, resolve issues and not look for a new job, taking their skills and know-how elsewhere. Getting managers to be better at the "people part" of the job is easier said than done, but it's not rocket science, says Ashforth.

The recipe for building a tribal culture girded by small-scale social ties is at once easy and difficult. The easy part is adhering to acknowledged managerial practices such as: Setting aside time to encourage personal connections and not focusing entirely on selling more product or making more widgets; Checking in frequently with subordinates rather than just doing an annual retreat or review; Being honest and candid in building a people-centric culture rather than forcing awkward gimmicks on employees. What's difficult is taking a long-term view, which shows that taking time to socialize today may ultimately produce more dollars.

Companies should also put managers in managerial positions as opposed to employees who are particularly skilled in some more specific task. Just because someone is an excellent computer programmer doesn't necessarily mean that he or she will be an excellent manager of other computer programmers. In many cases, employees who are promoted to front-line managerial levels know they are not good managers of people and then once they've been promoted, do not get adequate training to make them good managers. As a result, the project they oversee may be technically sound and completed on time, but the fallout from focusing on the process rather than the people can be so extensive that many of the tribe subsequently leave the company.

"Organizations tend to reward short-term results, so there's always a tendency when times are tough to put the screws to employees to get those short-term numbers up. But, of course, that has terrible long-term consequences," says Ashforth.

As a result, HR training dollars should be used to develop lower-level managers, giving them tools to build rapport, instead of spending those funds exclusively on bigger picture training. Even allocating a few dollars to allow managers to take their subordinates out to lunch can pay dividends in the tribal workplace.

But Ashforth cautions that while departmental lunches are a great venue to build relationships between individuals or the group, a good manager also lets the rest of the tribe operate on its own. It's important to give employees a chance to bond without the boss looking over their shoulder.

Taking a tribal focus places a large burden on lower-level managers versus C-level executives. Figuring out when it's appropriate to go to lunch and when it's best to let the tribe feast on its own can be a challenge, but it is these small moves among small groups that ultimately shape a large organization, says Ashforth.

"If we recognize the importance that these relationships have and the importance the job has at the local level, then a lot of the so-called important macro stuff tends to fall by the wayside. The macro stuff still matters but only in a more distal sense," says Ashforth. "In the day-to-day, everyday sense, what really matters is what you can see, what you can smell, what you can taste, what you can feel, what you're doing."

Bottom Line:

  • People are social animals and want to feel a sense of belonging with other people. How they feel about their employer is largely dependent on how they feel about their tribe -- their boss and immediate coworkers -- rather than the organization's larger culture and objectives as dictated by upper management.
  • If an organization recognizes the importance of its smallest local groups, or tribes, it places a burden on lower-level managers to make those groups meaningful to their members and to connect the groups to the wider organization.
  • Small groups of employees function better if their members feel like they truly know one another. Therefore, it is in the best interest of the organization to encourage employees to develop personal rapport.
  • When workgroups do not have the opportunity to socialize they can feel disconnected from their own tribe and thus the larger organization.
  • Although it is not a panacea, social networking technologies that encourage personal connections can help connect employees to their coworkers.
  • That's because an organization's chances of achieving its big goals and initiatives depends on how these goals are perceived through the lens of the tribe, and how that tribe interprets and acts on them.