What can you learn about managing people from peasant farmers in Okinawa, Japan? Plenty, it turns out.
Okinawans have a remarkable tradition called `moai` (mo-eye). Made popular by Dan Buettner's book Blue Zones, moai are described as informal groups created by people who commit to offer emotional, social, or even financial assistance to one another. The concept originated when farmers would meet on a regular basis to discuss the best way to plant crops and how to support one another (financially and emotionally) should their crops fail.
Modern day members of these social groups meet one another's practical needs--problem-solving, planning, pulling resources, and collaboration. But they also serve as a sort of extended family where social and emotional needs are met. They help manage crises, reduce stress, build authentic connection and intimacy, and sometimes ease grief. Essentially, moai is a group of people who "have your back" and commit to your wellbeing.
The tradition of moai is relevant to business. There is a pragmatic function of moai--they unite people and find solutions. In fact, they find solutions because they unite people. We all know that two heads really are better than one.
The best company cultures are not just high functioning environments where "business gets done," they are collectives of people who feel connected to one another and to the impact they are making on the organization. The invisible string that connects them is less about designating job responsibilities and strategic alignment between departments (although those are important), and more based on deep respect and a feeling of being "known" and accepted by people that they spend the majority of their time with.
Jack Welch famously said, "The soft stuff is the hard stuff," and those of us involved in business know this is true. Soft stuff, like company culture, can make or break the success of your business, and it's often the most difficult to change. Rather than produce another newsletter that no one reads or a boring corporate training to "improve communication," invest your resources in building moai in your organization. Here's how:
Create teams of people within your organization around practical benchmarks, such as acquiring 100 additional customers this month or obtaining 1,000 new users this week. Steer away from financial benchmarks because financial success is only a result of everything else working well. So focus on everything else first.
Allow these moai the time to build trust. You cannot force someone to trust you or each other, but you can create the conditions where trust can grow. Trust is birthed out of vulnerability. Talk about your failure and faults and others will, too. Talk about your emotions. This gives others tacit permission to own their feelings. Through time and consistent effort, trust is built with vulnerability and consistently doing what you say you'll do.
Execute the solutions that the group designs. Nothing is more frustrating than working to solve a problem, only to have your idea given short shrift. If you unleash a group to solve a problem, be willing to utilize their solution or, at the very least, maintain coach-like contact until you can step away.
Support the social relationships within the moai. Encourage these teams to collaborate outside of work, give them a budget to hang out at the local coffee shop, or design "collision points" where individuals are forced to run into each other. These seemingly dispensable aspects of team building are instrumental in getting the best out of your teams. We are social creatures; let's not pretend that we're not or that somehow this aspect of our humanity leaves us while we work. It doesn't.
Dr. SHELLEY PREVOST is a co-founder of Lamp Post Group, a venture incubator in Chattanooga, Tennessee. She curates kick-ass cultures by infusing principles of positive psychology in her role as Director of Happiness. @thegladlab