January 12

How to lead the Neo-Tribal communities of young people

Millennials and Generation Z wants free communities and close personal relationships with their leaders. It means goodbye to hierarchies and bound work tasks, and a hello to desire, interest, and most importantly: Trust.
By Emilia van Hauen, cultural sociologist, board member, and key-note speaker

Recently when waiting to board my plane I overheard a conversation that was not meant for me. In my defense, the man was sitting less than a meter away, and he spoke quite loudly. In fact, it was so loud that it disturbed me in my audiobook, so I paused it to check out if I was just being particularly delicate.

I wasn’t.

My fellow travelers also began to look up with wrinkled eyebrows as we could hear how he shamelessly scolded his young employee in terms that left no doubt that she was both inexperienced, naive, ignorant, bad prepared, a lousy planner, did not show responsibility and, incidentally, was too ugly to be in his company. After which he fired her. And followed it up with an order that she should tell her colleague that he, too, was fired.

The whole conversation took about three minutes. And besides being an extreme example of blatant mismanagement, it also shows a sorry master in the mistreatment of young employees. The short monologue showed me that he failed at almost every parameter that generations Y and Z emphasize in an employment relationship.

Close personal relationships

“When my teacher greets me out in the hallway, I feel that he sees me and knows me – and then we have a good relationship.”

Standing on a stage to a conference held by the Center for Youth Research, this was the reply from one of the four young people that I had asked what made a teacher a good teacher when we simultaneously live in a time where gamification of curriculum, entertainment, and exciting tests are happening every single day. Unanimously, they all replied that it was the teacher’s presence that made the difference. And the same thing is heard when you talk to young people about what makes a leader a good leader.

The work tasks are of course important, but the most important thing is that the boss manages to create a good and personal relationship with his employee, so that (s)he feels seen, heard, and valued. And that the workplace creates a work environment that is interesting to be a part of.

The old-fashioned bounded communities.

The manager that I overheard at the airport did clearly not see the value of having a good personal relationship with his employees. On the contrary, he based his management on control, mistrust, criticism, lack of guidance, and (apparently) a very small degree of freedom. And if he has not managed to fire everyone at the moment, I think that he probably does not have many young employees left as the time when young people accept being treated badly just because they are young and inexperienced is over. But also, because the young generations orient themselves towards communities in a different way than we have seen before.

The type of communities that the aforesaid manager speaks into is called bounded communities within sociology. They are characterized by the fact that one is forced together to survive, and that the competition takes place within a very limited field. Therefore, it is far less about the individual’s wishes and needs, and far more about adapting to the group so that it can survive overall. Bound communities have their roots in feudal principles, and are particularly characterized by three factors:

Common locality: All members work within the same physical place while performing their tasks.

 Common activity: All members work together to perform and solve one common task, i.e. all produce the same product or service.

Common mentality: All members think the same about what they do and who they are. Homogeneity is thus a big plus in the organization.

Overall, you are doing the same things together, thinking the same thing about what you do, and doing it in the same place. For the same reason, the bounded communities also become very decisive for who you become, what you do, and who you share your work life with.

Today, there are still many organizations that live by these principles though they exist in many more flexible forms. The benefits are a clear hierarchy, an effective system, and a clear focus on results, all of which have taken our society very far.

The 8 elements of modern neo-tribal communities

But time calls for a different way of organizing ourselves. Especially if you want to make your workplace attractive to generations Y and Z. Popularly, they are called free communities or neo-tribal communities, which simply means “new tribal communities”.

These types of communities are built around the following elements:

  • Volunteering
  • Desire
  • Interest
  • Initiative
  • Creativity
  • Openness
  • Diversity
  • Trust


Volunteering is the key

The voluntary element covers the fact that today there exists much greater freedom to look for work in different ways. Freelancing is the fastest-growing work situation in Europe and especially amongst young people. For some, it is because they cannot get steady employment, for most it is a personal choice even though it can lead to a fundamentally insecure life considering from where the news assignments (and hence salary) will present themselves. The freedom to choose which tasks to accept and which not, is also a very attractive element of the freelancing lifestyle.

Volunteering is thus closely linked to the next two elements, namely desire, and interest. Rather than “just” having a permanent and secure job that creates access to both finances and social security, it is far more the personal interest and desire for the individual tasks that drive the young people into the workplace. The advantage for the employer is that the young person often has a separate knowledge in advance because it is precisely something that drives the individual and thus is often also driven by her own desire to constantly become more skilled. At the same time, the young people have been trained through youtube and other similar media to seek out knowledge and train the necessary skills in the areas in which they are interested, and this they of course bring with them to the workplace, the coworkers, and in the assignments.

The initiative to take responsibility for one’s own development and empowerment naturally also creates a need to be allowed to take initiatives in the organization, instead of simply reproducing what is known or creating what management prescribes. This in turn is related to the constant training that generations Y and Z have received in cultivating and expressing their own creativity.

A neo-tribal organization is thus built around self-management and space for co-creation, but this can only happen if the last three elements are present: namely openness, diversity, and trust.

Openness, diversity, and trust

Openness is the element that ensures that the organization constantly gets new resources into the existing and thus renewal in practice comes from believing in diversity. But the last element is, in fact, probably the most important and what this whole form of organization stands for, namely trust.

Modern free communities have trust between the members, trust in the common project, and the individual’s trust in her own original contribution and its value to the community, as the cornerstone on which everything else rests.

Where traditional communities are characterized more by fear of the foreign, and thus constantly try to exclude members who exhibit behavior other than the permitted, or constantly build walls against other realities (literally, the city walls of the past can be seen as examples of this), free communities are on the contrary characterized by inclusion. Anyone who takes the initiative to become a member, and who has something useful to offer the group, is easily invited in.

According to Professor Gert Tinggaard Svendsen, Danes are the most trusting people in the world. According to him, as many as 78 percent of Danes believe that you can trust a person you do not know. This does not only provide a better social environment but also a better bottom line because one can spend time creating instead of controlling each other’s work.

The biggest challenge the neo-tribal communities face is their volatility. As it is neither honor nor duty that keeps members inside the group, it is easy to move on when you no longer feel that you get “something out of” being a member, and it is a challenge for the continuity of the tasks and the culture. Especially among young people, where 49 percent expect to leave their current job within two years, according to Deloitte’s Millennial Survey Danish Edition 2019.

How to lead a neo-tribal community?

In a traditional organization, the leader is the one who is highest placed among all. It provides a clear hierarchy and a familiar workflow with approvals downward. The challenge, however, is that the leader often refrains from meeting and getting direct input from the underground of ideas and needs that are emerging. Not only among marginal subcultures or the young generations but also among what some call “mainstream” and which all too often is an overlooked power factor.

When a company, and especially the management, wish to have natural and direct access to the knowledge and experience that are shaping our society today the solution is to turn to the neo-tribal form of organization, where the keyword is “central” and not “high”. The leader must place herself in the middle of the organization in order to be in touch with everything that is going on, instead of acting as a potential bottleneck for ideas, and people. Placing herself in the center the leader becomes a hub for creativity, relationships, groupings, ideas and more. Her most important task is thus to connect the right people with the right ideas and create the best conditions for creativity and manifestation to take place.

When the leader places herself centrally, it also provides opportunities to do the following, which is the whole basis for being able to create a neo-tribal community. It’s about creating:

  • commitment and thus voluntary movements
  • opportunity for organic creativity
  • an empathic work environment
  • and let processes and intuition (based on experience) be governing

A leader who manages to do this basically manages to create trustworthy volunteers and mutually binding relationships – and can therefore potentially come to “own” her employees. Ownership here means that the employee voluntarily joins either the manager or the workplace because he wants to and see their advantage in it. Not because they are addicted to the job.

Most of the dialogues I have with leaders about how to create an attractive work environment for young people are about how to organize themselves so that they can best attract and withhold them. The above provides a clear plan for what elements to build on to create the type of relationship that makes them come and stay. And if you want to start today and to do something NOW, start by showing and giving trust. Trust is the access to all the other elements – and in trust, there is also a basic notion of both equality and value. Precisely the two things that enable young people to contribute what they actually have to contribute, and that alone is a good start.

By Emilia van Hauen, published in the biggest Danish business newspaper, Børsen on 07.07.2019


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