Thursday, 15 October 2020

Culture Clash, Tribes, and why Remote Working is Creating Stress

Thousands of years ago, we lived in tribes. Our friends and family were in that tribe. We had occasional contact with other tribes, for example to trade. Our tribe had a leader, and a leadership hierarchy. Everyone knew where they were in that hierarchy. Everyone was safe.

Human beings are a social animal, but not like sheep. Sheep have no hierarchy, and no rituals. Human beings are ritualistic, like cats and chimpanzees. If you have more than one cat in your house, you'll know that they engage in rituals. They have leadership contests. They have a 'pecking order'. They innately understand the protection conferred by a social hierarchy. At times of danger, don't hold an election.

Human beings also have leadership contests. You can see them in every workplace. They work differently for men and women, because alpha males and alpha females use different methods for gaining power, securing resources and protecting their tribes.

You're probably starting to relate all of this to your own workplace, or workplaces you have known.

None of this is a problem when we live in one tribe. We know our place in the pecking order. We know how to stay safe. We know the rules.

We live in a world where we no longer live in a single tribe. We have created artificial, arbitrary tribes which we call schools and corporations and committees and clubs. These are organised hierarchically because human beings have evolved around hierarchical social structures. Many people call for reform, for flat structures, for government by consensus. I don't know that the people 'at the top' ever call for such reform.

The difficulties that we face in such social hierarchies are not caused by the hierarchy, they are caused by the multiple hierarchies that we have created. You wake up in the morning and follow your routine for the day, and you are in your home tribe. Then you go to school or work, and you have to fit into a different tribe. You might go from being alpha female to being down at the bottom of the power structure.

Since you're more likely to be working from home at the moment, you're more likely to be in your alpha role, more of the time. And what happens when you join your online team meeting?

Or, you might feel that you're second or third in command in your own tribe, and when you get to work you're thrust into the alpha male role. This adaptation takes time, and it creates stress.

Stress is the result of opposing forces acting upon a body. At home, one set of rules and rituals pull you in one direction. At work, a different set of rules and rituals. Different hierarchy, different leadership contests, different ritualistic behaviours evolved to help you figure out where you fit into the tribe. As you travel to and from work, you adapt to that different environment. When you used to commute, if you can remember that far back, you remember it, don't you? That feeling that grew as you approached the office. The relief of closing your own front door. That sense of impending doom that you would start to feel from Sunday afternoon onwards. All signs that you are preparing to adapt to a different set of social rules.

Remote working has crashed these opposing cultures together. Are you at home, at school or at work? Or all three at the same time? That feeling of adapting to a different tribe is now happening many times in each day. Up early for a meeting. Video on? Better get dressed. Then do the washing. Who's using the Internet? I need it for an important call. I need the dining table. OK, you can have the dining table this afternoon. What's for dinner?

The fact that our work and home lives are merging is not the problem. We are entire, whole beings. We can do it all. But what we can't do is follow two different sets of rules at the same time. Imagine if the rules of the road were changing around you as you drove your car. OK, yes, that's Egypt, or India, or many other countries. But in those countries, there are still rules, and people know what to do, even if it seems like mayhem to outsiders.

More and more, we are being forced onto cultural islands. Our main way of coping is to shut out the outside world and protect ourselves. This is not healthy. Human communication is vital for our mental health.

If you're a manager, talk to your team about the rules and their different home tribes. If you're not a manager, demand that your manager talks to their team about the rules and their different home tribes. Understand how you each fit together and complement each other. Don't keep on talking about work, work, work. Talk about your expectations and frustrations. Share your different ways of coping at home.

Above all else, build a tribe that promotes safety over productivity.

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