Secret Decoder Ring: Solving the Mystery of Social Tribes

About a year after I joined General Mills in 1999, I was talking to a friend about how I still felt like an outsider. She said, “Jean, that’s because no one gave you the ‘secret decoder ring’ to help you understand the company’s culture.” At the time, I felt like she read my mind and was relieved that someone else had shared my experience. While she didn’t hand me the decoder ring, these simple words steered me to look for clues and nuances that changed how I interpreted what was going on around me. Somewhere along the line, I no longer needed a decoder ring, as the General Mills culture had become second nature to me. I didn’t notice when this transformation occurred, but after I’d internalized the code, I tried to be sensitive to others who came on board and take time to name some of the unspoken mores that could be landmines for a new person learning the organization.

A few recent events bring this learning back into focus. Now as a consultant, I see that the General Mills culture, which had become part of my DNA, does not transfer to other organizations. Every company has its own mores, and they don’t hand out “secret decoder rings” to help new people come on board. With every new client, I need to start over, looking for new clues that help me make my way in the organization.

Second, I watched Seth Godin’s TED presentation, “The Tribes We Lead,” where he talks about social marketing tribes and how leaders build movements by telling a story, unifying disconnected groups, and channeling collective energy toward a cause. He describes leaders of social tribes as those who challenge the status quo and build a new culture by inviting people into a “secret handshake” that makes them feel like they are part of something that matters.

So I’ve been pondering the “secret decoder ring” phenomenon. Without the decoder ring, you feel isolated and alone even when you officially belong. But if the “ring” can unite disparate people into a movement or cause that creates social change, it’s not only secret, but also magic. Digging further into the social tribe trend, I see a few universal truths that have the power to unify people around movements:

  • Curiosity – People are drawn to the novel, fascinating, and inexplicable. If you can engage them in “cracking the code” of an intriguing challenge you can ignite their energy for your cause.
  • Belonging – People want to feel like they are not alone in experiencing their joys and sorrows. As Godin says, “people want to be missed when they don’t show up.” This is the power of programs like Alcoholics Anonymous – people find others who share their issues and stand behind them in overcoming the challenges. Soon they are accountable to a force that is bigger than their own personal struggles.
  • Common purpose – People will stretch their limits when their own goal is amplified by a larger goal. Athletes who run marathons to raise money for a cause rally around a purpose that transcends their own training and competitive goals. By uniting with others to achieve something bigger than they can do on their own, they become committed to a movement.
  • Unmet need – People trust and follow leaders who solve their problems. When a leader connects them to others with the same issues and they provide each other with meaningful solutions, their commitment to the leader and the movement is solidified. Weight Watcher group leaders inspire hope by role modeling, “I did it so you can too,” and they create a following by providing practical, trustworthy solutions.

The mystery of the “secret decoder ring” is found in the stories around you . . . in the culture that defines a group’s behavior and the universal truths that reveal the human condition.


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