How Burning Man Culture Helps Define Social Dynamics At The Office

By David Mizne

At 15Five we use research frequently; whether it be our evidence-based management approach or using data to analyze our own growth as a company. As such, it made perfect sense to seek the advice of a social psychologist to help us understand the science behind  work cultures and define the social dynamics at play in every business. These lessons on culture provide greater insight into what inspires employees and keeps organizations running.

Tony Vigorito In addition to authoring three novels (see, including his most recent underground hit, Love and Other Pranks, Tony Vigorito, Ph.D. is a social psychologist and cultural design consultant in the San Francisco Bay Area. You can follow him on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. I caught up with Tony recently to get his insights on how to build positive and thriving work cultures:

DM: Building a work culture from day one (with attendant rituals, values, and touchstones) is easier than shifting a culture once it has already formed. What’s happening when cultures emerge and what advice do you have for leaders to direct employees towards a certain shared understanding or mission?

TV: Ideally, leaders begin with a vision of how they want work culture to evolve, because in the absence of that people unconsciously recreate the cultures from which they came. Let’s say that you have a startup and all of your new employees are coming from established companies like Google and Amazon. Via the mechanism of how roles, expectations, and attention have previously been modeled, these people are going to unconsciously recreate their previous cultures, at least in the absence of proactive leadership.

It’s also useful to draw a distinction between what we call objective culture and subjective culture. Objective culture is culture that has already been created by others, such that we perceive it as an object external to ourselves. Subjective culture, on the other hand, is the capacity of the individual subject to create, control, and produce elements of culture. For example, in the United States today, Amazon is an expression of objective culture. Twenty-five years ago they were an expression of subjective culture. So, the cultures we create take on a facticity that resists the emergence of new cultural forms, forestalling innovation.

The tragedy of culture that befalls many organizations is that they end up mindlessly recreating previously established (and often undesirable) social structures. As time goes by, this dialectic between subjective and objective culture makes it increasingly difficult to manifest subjective culture, which is to say, it becomes increasingly challenging to change the structures that have already been created by other people—people that are ultimately no different from you or I. But because they have been successful at manifesting some aspect of their subjective culture into the cultural space inhabited by the collective, it then becomes objective culture for everyone else.

DM: Let’s say a founder starts a company and doesn’t launch with a work culture in mind—no values, mission, etc.—but they somehow achieve a degree of success, like product market fit. Then things start to unravel because of cultural issues. Arguably, they have the most authority, how do they redirect the culture?

TV: Social dynamics can sometimes get lost in familiar structures, so let’s use the example of the now-world-famous Burning Man festival which takes place in the Nevada desert every year. Because the city appears out of the dust literally within a span of days, it’s a phenomenal laboratory for observing how social structures emerge and are influenced by individuals.

scotty scalper

I’ve observed the event for years and I first noticed a shift around 2011 or 2012, when Burning Man first sold out of tickets in advance of the event. Immediately, tickets became a scarce resource. In order to sustain the awesome scale of the event, the Burning Man Organization began apportioning tickets to existing theme camps or the groups who were contributing the spectacular art, music, and experiences that define the physical and cultural landscape of the event.

This granted a new degree of status, power, and influence to the leaders of theme camps who could essentially dictate that to attend the event (i.e., to guarantee yourself a ticket), you would have to participate in a specific camp, providing those camp leaders with the ability to dictate experiences for camp members. Participants had to pay camp dues and volunteer their effort in exchange for resources such as meal plans, drinking water, showers, access to social networks, preferential placement, and the tickets themselves.

Now obviously, at one level, this is an organic and functional dynamic, but it becomes problematic when leaders are driven by ambition rather than service, i.e., the leader who controls access to resources in order to sustain their own power vs. the (mis)leader who strives to make sure everyone’s needs are being served by the culture they create.

The same thing can happen in a work culture. Management has supreme control over the resources of their employees. Despite any pretense about a company being a tribe, family, or team, management can always fire any family member, and if any tribesman can be banished during a temporary resource shortage then it’s not actually a tribe. As an aside, it’s worth noting that management imposes these euphemisms to soften the truth that oftentimes workplace social structures are inorganic and can be impersonal and alienating.

One need look no further than the unfortunate term “human resources” to see the truth behind the mask. Essentially, management imposes an interpretation of experience intended to inspire the group identity and loyalty present in more traditional forms of social relating—the sort of forms in which we inhabited for all of human history prior to the Industrial Revolution—on social structures that typically bear little resemblance to them.

But if people feel like they are dealing with a calculating and impersonal management, they are likely to resist it. As individuals we all want to feel like we are participating in a community which is larger and more meaningful than the self. However, around 2-300 years ago, the great social transformation from communal to associational structures gained traction and has left us in a state of alienation that we seek to remedy by changing how we think of these structures without actually changing them.

DM: This sounds very sinister. We have a tribal work culture and have developed a very successful business with near zero attrition in over six years. Yes, everyone is aware that firing can happen—my former direct supervisor was one of the only terminations—but these are always handled with compassion and with the best interests of the employees being held in tandem with the best interests of the company.

TV: There’s nothing sinister in pointing out the basic constraints of what a social structure is composed. Social analysis strives to transcend ideological bias, and in so doing may sometimes unveil uncomfortable truths. But you are correct in sensing that a social structure is made out of of social roles and that those roles are made out of real people. Like actors inhabiting roles, as individuals we have the capacity to inhabit—and define—our social roles in our own way.

Yes, organizations are made out of individuals, and in the ideal workplace—despite it being organized according to the associational structure I’ve described—we still create friendships, loyalties, and something resembling community within that. In fact, this is the ideal cultural design within a company. When we begin to identify with one another as friends, we’re no longer associating with one another strictly on the basis of social role, which by itself is inherently alienating.

Don’t miss part two of 15Five’s interview with Tony Vigorito: The Social Psychology of Toxic Work Culture.

There will be deeper considerations other than the barren rules of social role that will determine our behavior. We begin to interact, participate, and fulfill responsibilities on the basis of an intrinsic sense of obligation to one another rather than conforming to an extrinsic and coercive structure. The point, however, is that this has to be genuine, and it’s in everyone’s interest that it is. Feigning family, team, and tribe without actually satisfying any of these needs can only breed indignation and resentment among employees.

Perhaps the way forward is to strike a compromise between the associational and communal. The associational has its advantages in terms of efficiency, which is unfortunately often the only premise in the marketplace because it’s the point of view required by shareholders. But when you’re dealing with your human resources—excuse me, human talent—community is the primary premise because everyone instinctively wants to participate in something larger than themselves.

love and other pranksBy the way, this is one of the reasons I invented a cult in my most recent novel, Love and Other Pranks, to act as a sort of microcosm by which the reader could examine social dynamics that are otherwise hidden by their very proximity. Even the most cursory glance at the word culture reveals that it shares the same root as cult. A cult is an extreme form of culture, where control over all material and nonmaterial resources is removed from the individual and vested with the guru/leader. In a cult, there is no capacity for the individual to create and control culture; instead, they have been turned into a vacant consumer of culture, which is inherently alienating and deeply dissatisfying. Cults typically collapse for this very reason.

When individuals are divested of the capacity to fulfill their basic human need of participating in the creation of culture, all cultures, whether cult or company, inevitably lose relevance for their participants. In business, when a balance is struck between the associational needs of the shareholders and the communal needs of the human beings that are inhabiting these roles, everyone wins.

One way to build community is via company trips. Adventure is effective at building work culture, which is why teams brave high ropes courses or have ski-weekends. Think of any friendship that you’ve ever built, they deepen after sharing an adventure or an edge experience. I could be unnecessarily cynical and say that it’s just an illusion of community, but from your lived experiences at 15Five, surfing in Mexico with your team or snowboarding in Tahoe, it sounds and I’m sure it feels authentic. I think you end up with a much more effective company culture when that culture is giving people what they are looking for – a sense of community and a network of friends.

DM: What about subcultures? Subgroups often form in companies, and there can be healthy competition or fun across teams but that can be volatile. Do we want that to exist and help to define social dynamics, or are we asking for unhealthy competition to develop like at Apple during the 80s where the Mac team was favored by Steve Jobs?

TV: I immediately think about various law enforcement agencies. They are all on the same side of the law with the same basic goal, but there will nonetheless be interagency rivalry, such as between the CIA and the FBI. Or rivalries between local and federal law enforcement where information is not shared and there is a subsequent interference with their shared goals. All of this can interfere with organizational efficiency.

When you lack information, you lack the capacity to make informed decisions. Or to use your case of Apple, you lack the ability to develop and adapt your products most effectively to the marketplace. Those shared learnings can apply across teams. I think the rivalries you are describing should be done away with, to the extent that is possible.

This type of organizational behavior is actually an artifact of factory work. The early industrialists would typically manufacture competition between their workers primarily to reduce solidarity and the risks of labor organizing to gain more control over compensation and working conditions (unionization). That has been part of the capitalist model since the very beginning of the Industrial Revolution. I wonder though if such competition can be done away with entirely. From the point of view of shareholders, efficiency gains at the same pace that the human needs of the individual are ignored. The impulse is to keep things associational rather than communal.

But this solution is bluntly shortsighted and lacking in a nuanced understanding of how human organizations function. To the extent that a company fails to invest in the human needs of its employees, disloyalty (and the consequent need to hire and train new workers) and dishonesty (pilfering, embezzlement, sabotage, etc.) proceed, rapidly chipping away at the efficiency of the organization.

People are not stupid. Even if they lack the ability to articulate their frustrations with deficiencies in social dynamics, that doesn’t mean they aren’t sensing those deficiencies. If a company’s attempt to create community is less than genuine, it will create alienation and will fail to achieve the goals sought by its leaders.

I wrote a paper on worker-owned businesses some time ago and interviewed several members of those types of enterprises. What really stood out is that their locus of social control is internal rather than external. In other words, they don’t show up late to work, not because of a repercussion, but basically because that’s just uncool. They’re essentially messing with their friends when they act selfishly.

They don’t steal, because they’d be stealing from themselves. This is an organization that has evolved entirely into the communal context, wherein each member has an equal and vested interest in their collective success. In a normal business, passive shareholders would prefer that the organization not evolve into that because that would undermine their ability to live off of their investments.

DM: There’s a point at which economic efficiency fails. So there needs to be a balance between economic efficiency and how stakeholders are treated. The same is true I think in what you were talking about balancing the associational and communal aspects of an organization. Inspiring internal motivation in employees is one of the points of work cultures. Those people will be driven to add value not solely because of the economic benefits they derive but from contributing to something greater. And research surrounding lessons on culture suggests that especially with the coming generation, purpose rules as a motivating factor.

Now, shareholders or company leaders may decide to “create a work culture” by writing some things on the wall because data suggests that this is what people want and will lead to increased revenue, but this is still economically-driven. I think employees can smell the bullshit and want to be enrolled in work cultures where a visionary leader believes in something.

TV: There is absolutely a risk in a company’s attempts to build a culture if it’s perceived as insincere, if it’s all talk and no walk. People are not stupid. Even if they lack the ability to articulate their frustrations with deficiencies in social dynamics, that doesn’t mean they aren’t sensing those deficiencies. If a company’s attempt to create community is less than genuine, it will create alienation and will fail to achieve the sought-after goals.

MizDavid Mizne is Marketing Communications Manager at 15Five, continuous performance management software that includes weekly check-ins, objectives (OKR) tracking, peer recognition, 1-on-1s, and reviews. David’s articles have also appeared on The Next Web & TalentCulture. Follow him @davidmizne.

Image Credit: Redwood Coast

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