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Today, organizational culture is shifting to embrace fast-moving, agile teams in order to create efficiencies and meet the demands that rapid technological advances are causing in our world. But, if you’ve been working in a hierarchical organization with established norms, you know how difficult it can be to cross organizational boundaries.

I sat down with culture expert Mario Moussa, author of The Culture Puzzle, to find out why. Listen in to find out why, as humans, we have tribal impulses that drive the ways we interact inside and outside the workplace. You’ll learn how to harness those natural impulses to create a culture that resonates with employees across the entire organization.

In the interview, we discuss the following topics:

  • Why are tribes the right type of groups by which we should address organizational transformation?
  • Should culture change be a top-down or bottom-up initiative?
  • What steps does a leader need to take to start shifting culture?

About Mario 
Mario Moussa is president of Moussa Consulting and an affiliate faculty member in the College of Liberal and Professional Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. He also teaches in the School of Professional Studies at New York University and is an educator at Duke University Corporate Education. His work has been featured on NPR and in Time, Businessweek, U.S. News & World Report, Fortune, Forbes, Inc., Entrepreneur, The Economist, and Financial Times. He is the coauthor of the bestseller The Art of Woo and Committed Teams. He received his MBA from the Wharton School and his PhD from the University of Chicago.

Listen to the interview

KK: Most approaches to culture that I’m familiar with address the entire organization or even entire countries or religions, groups with a very high number of people. Tell us why you’ve chosen tribes as the right type of group. 

MM: People are tribal. While writing The Culture Puzzle, we went back to social science, and one of the things that we found is that humans are wired to form groups, essentially small groups. If you go way back in history, it’s pretty clear that we learned as a species that we do better in groups than we do alone or in pairs. The tendency to come together and form a group is kind of built into us. In other words, we come together, we form a tribe, and pretty quickly culture kicks into gear. We start asking the set of questions that we think of as the forces that drive culture.

KK: What are some examples of those questions? 

MM: We start defining what we are doing as a group. What are we aiming for? What defines our group? Who’s inside our group? Who’s outside of our group? How do we think about insiders? How do we think about outsiders? We figure out what is important to us and how we plan to reinforce that. We come together and have these conversations around how we express our values. And another question, which is related to what you’ve been writing and thinking about, is innovation. How do we do things now, and how can we do things better?

It’s pretty clear when you look back at the records that we’re always asking that question. We’re not automatons. We’re always tinkering around the edges and looking for ways to improve.

All of those questions, those forces, and those dynamics come into play when we come together in small groups. One of the insights that we had as we worked through The Culture Puzzle is that the tribe is the best way to understand culture, even culture within large organizations. An organization is a tribe of tribes, or as Stanley McChrystal likes to put it, a team of teams.

So if a culture in an organization is a tribe of tribes, the lens of the tribe helps to explain a lot of our experience in organizations. Finance has its own way of doing things; manufacturing has its own way of doing things; sales has its own way of doing things. That’s why it’s so difficult to work across those silos. It’s because we come together and define ourselves in terms of our tribal vision, our interests, and our habits. We have a way of doing things and innovating. The tribal impulse is built into our bones, because for thousands and thousands of years, we’ve been tribal and it has worked for us.

But for the past 150 years or so, we’ve been working in these much bigger and much more complex global corporations. That’s why it’s so challenging to work — because we’re working in very complex organizations. And it takes a certain kind of leadership and a certain type of thinking to knit together the pieces of an organization.

A company or organization of any kind is what we like to call an imagined community, a community that exists in our minds. What is Apple? What is General Motors? What are the United States? These are imagined communities. We’re all different; we’re members of different tribes, but obviously we can come together and think of ourselves as part of the same organization. But that organization exists only in our minds. So how do we create that? We imagine it together, and that’s what it means to create a vision.

KK: Is there a limit or ideal size that a tribe can be? 

MM: A tribe can be five people or 50 people. Then, if you think about tribes of tribes, the number could be 500 or even 5000. It starts with a small group of anywhere from five to 50. Some social scientists say 50 is the sweet spot. It’s hard for us to hold in our minds the complexity of more than 50 people working together.

Even within a small organization of 25 people, you might have four or five different tribes, and those tribes might come together for different reasons. A tribe might form because you’re fans of the same basketball team, or you take a break at the same time, or you went to the same school, or for more explicit business reasons. The important thing to note is that it’s at work almost immediately. When you bring together a group of people at random, they start forming a tribe and asking, “Who are we? Why are we together? What are the roles here? Who is leading this group?”

KK: Fascinating. It reminds me of something my father once said. He said, when you wake up in the morning, you’re a father. And then, when you drive to work, you’re a commuter. When you go to work, you are a faculty member. Or you go to a movie and you’re a Star Wars fan. We probably live in different tribes. Can we switch between them? 

MM: Yeah. A few thoughts about your comment. One of the points we make in the book is that this process of forming a tribe happens whether you’re managing it or not. As a group, you’re going to form ideas about where you’re going. Those ideas might be aligned or misaligned. And you’re going to ask the same questions: Who is in the group? Who is outside the group? How do we reinforce what’s important to the group? That’s all going to happen whether you’re managing it or not. In Team of Teams, they laid out a formal process for defining that. That could either help or hinder your organization, depending on your strategy and what you want to get done.

And the other point you’re bringing up is, yes, we all have different roles. I’m a father; I’m a businessman; I’m a tennis player; I’m a writer. Clifford Geertz, the anthropologist, says we occupy multiple webs of significance. At work, we might be part of the finance tribe. Then we come home and we’re part of our family tribe. If we go out to the play baseball with our friends, we’re part of the baseball tribe. In today’s world, we inhabit so many different roles, and that’s one of the reasons why we often ask, “Okay, who am I? What group am I a part of?” In the pre-modern world, maybe it was a little clearer to define who you would be for the rest of your life.

KK: There’s a book that I read, The Psychology of Man’s Possible Evolution, and there’s a graphic that shows we think that we are represented by one letter “I” in the middle of a circle, but actually what we are is many different “I’s”. That makes me think that maybe part of this building the culture is triggering the identity for the tribe as soon as you walk in. 

MM: That’s exactly right. It comes back to the idea of an imagined community. We’re all different. We have different genders, we have different histories, we speak different languages, we have different training. But what brings us all together, we have to build that. We have to imagine it together. We have to consciously grow that so it doesn’t just happen.

The other point related to tribes is that there’s a natural fragmentation that happens. You have to keep tending your garden. Culture is organic. It’s dynamic; it’s never static.

I think we all learned a lot about that during the pandemic when one day we were working one way, most of us were working face-to-face, and the next day, we were working the way we’re talking now, on Zoom.

Because I realized actually culture can change literally overnight. For many organizations, we learned a whole new way of getting our work done and being connected to each other. The point is, culture is always changing, and we’re not aware of it, because most of the time we’re operating on automatic pilot. We’re just going about our business, and we’re not reflecting on culture. It would be hard, if not impossible, to engage in this kind of thinking and then get anything else done.

KK: Something else that you wrote that I’m curious about is that culture is self-creating. And as a leader, you should be thinking about the kind of culture you are evoking. But you also write that culture should come from the bottom-up rather than the top-down.  

MM: We say it should be both. Culture, in a sense, comes from the top. But what we take issue with is the idea that culture comes from the top, the C-Suite owns culture, and that’s that. The social science and our research say that culture is everywhere, and nobody owns it. There may be a really clear set of cultural messages coming down from the top, but it doesn’t mean everybody hears, understands, or is on board with them. Given that we’re tribal, every group has its own particular culture.

It takes work to envision ideally how you want an organization to work. Call that the vision or the mission, but you also have to connect those goals with everybody in the organization for it to be effective, because there is a natural fragmentation. There is evidence coming from social science that suggests that not everyone understands their company’s goals or is on board with them. It takes constant work to be making those connections.

As a leader, you need to be thinking about culture all the time. It doesn’t take care of itself. Let’s say you have a strategy. But what are people thinking about it? How are they feeling about it? Is it in their bones? One of the reasons it’s so hard to be a leader of an organization is that you have to pay attention to strategy and you have to pay attention to culture. You have to be doing both all the time.

KK: What does a leader need to do to start shifting culture? Is that even the role of a leader? 

MM: Yes, it is the role of a leader. There are four forces: Vision, Interest, Habit, Innovation. You can think of them as steps in a process.

  1. Define the vision: What is the culture? Where are we going? What do we stand for? What kind of company do we want to be? This should include stories across all members of the organization. Imagine what we call histories of the future, and write those stories together. For example, employee X and employee Y: How are they going to be working together?
  2. Determine interests: How does the vision sound to team members? Do we see ourselves in it? Are people inspired when they hear this story? Bring teams together, on a Zoom or in a conference room, and ask them to share what resonates with them.
  3. Develop habits: How do we reinforce our vision? How do we embed our values in our day-to-day habits?
  4. Discover innovation: Put the habits into place, and check in to see how people are innovating around those guidelines. Have they found ways of working or creating that you didn’t think of initially? How does that change our vision?

Culture is a dynamic process, so each time you innovate, you could potentially run through all the steps again. We interviewed the head of a credit union out on the West Coast with about 100 employees. Every month, he goes through a similar process. He checks in with employees through one-on-ones or in focus groups and hears issues that come up. Then he has a check-in with the board, and the whole process repeats. He is always tending to his garden.

I once had dinner with a consultant in New York who said, “Culture is an output.” For us, culture is never an output because it makes us human. Culture is the soil in which we have a conversation about our company. It’s the soil in which we have a conversation about strategy. Culture comes first.

KK: Is it internal or external changes that require the ongoing cultivation of the culture? Or is that just the nature of culture? Strategy used to be very competitively focused, and then it became more customer-focused, and now I would say it’s more employee-focused.  

MM: Another key point is that adaptation of culture is a never-ending process. It’s a process of problem-solving. It’s always happening. As a species, we’re really good at it, and that’s why we dominate the Earth. For better or worse, we’re the dominant species.

It seems pretty clear that, while other animals might have cultures, they don’t have culture in the way that we do. We can live in Manhattan. We can live on mountaintops or on the sea. Human beings are enormously adaptable, because we have the ability to create cultures that put us in a position to adapt to our environment.

In a business context, it used to be that competition was king. Your goal was to control the market. You chose a product and set the price. Then the market changed. It became much more dynamic. The customer has the power, and we need to be more customer-focused. And I would say today, we’re in an employee empowerment stage. You need to pay attention to your employees because they have choices.

A lot of people during the pandemic had a “You Only Live Once” moment. And they’re asking themselves, “How do I want to spend my time? Where do I want do to live? Who do I want to work with? Is money really the most important thing for me?” Maybe it is the most important thing, but they have many more choices than they did before, because they’ve experimented with new ways of working. Companies have to adapt again.

KK: That’s exactly right. And what I find interesting is, on the output side, your competition is fairly narrow, because if you’re selling pens, there are only three or four other companies that sell pens. But on the input side, in particular the human input side, you’re not competing against pen manufacturers. You’re competing against pencil manufacturers and paper manufacturers. You’ve got a lot of competition for people. 

MM: That’s right, particularly today. And maybe I don’t want to be a pen manufacturer, now I want to be a software engineer.

KK: Is there anything else that you want to make sure that readers walk away with? 

MM: I would emphasize the point that culture comes first. Culture is about adaptation. I see many statements about culture that show that we still have a partial view of culture.

People say, “You want to know what the culture [of an organization is]? Look at who is promoted.” That’s one aspect of culture, but that’s not all of it. Or they say, “Culture is about how you treat people. We’re a people-first organization.” That’s part of culture, too, but it’s not all of culture. It doesn’t get to vision or innovation.

It’s by bringing together all of those forces – Vision, Interest, Habit, Innovation – that you understand what makes culture so powerful and why it allows us to adapt to our environment in the ways we do. For all of those reasons, culture comes first.