5 Ways Conferences Can Teach Us How Organizations Behave

Conferences are our own tribal gatherings, held in giant convention centers in fun cities like Las Vegas and New Orleans —  21st-century village squares. Aside from scrambling to catch every event we can and slyly peeking at each other’s badges, we listen to storytellers and reconnect with our shared sense of purpose.  We also eat too much, hardly go outside, and hit the hay at 2 am. Why sleep when we’re in a dream world of star keynote speakers and mind-blowing new tools?

What we’re doing at these massive events is a mirror on the work we’ve got to do back in reality. We may think we’ve evolved so far from our origins that the workforce itself is no longer human — consider all the presentations on AI. But judging from how we are at these grand events, I’d argue the opposite is true, and here’s why:

  1. We Still Act Like a Tribe. We easily join up to get behind a shared objective. At the conference, we’re in a bubble of excitement and community, surrounded by hundreds of colleagues. We flock to presentations and keynotes like villagers heading to the campfire, eager to hear our leaders tell stories that renew our shared sense of purpose.

How does that play out in organizations? The workforce is a social tribe and we suffer from some holdover traits, such as powerful women still getting interrupted by their male peers.

  1. We Follow Our Leaders. We tend not to extoll the leader-follower equation these days, but we should. At work we generally accept the direction set by our leaders, flawed or not. If there’s a good story involved, even better. We’re open to their ideas and we want to be inspired.

Organizationally, we can leverage that to improve work culture, and hold our leaders accountable. Transformation starts at the top. We just saw an Uber board member forced to resign over a bro-ish remark. It’s high time to bring in more women leaders as well. A recent Deloitte study found that in 2016, only a fifth of board members in Fortune 500 companies were women.

  1. We All Suffer From FOMO. FOMO (fear of missing out) is a more potent force than we often realize. It’s the ancient glue that holds us together, a primitive, tribal survival instinct that’s more recently conflated with the need to have the best new toys. But it’s far more than a material desire or addiction to social media. It can work for or against organizational change.

Not wanting to miss out is a behavior worth paying attention to, and leveraging for positive ends. It can drive engagement and get people on board with learning and development initiatives and new tech adoptions. It’s also a strong argument for building a recognition culture with a big emphasis on social sharing.

  1. We Like Bright and Shiny. Tribes on the search for sustenance, shelter and treasure developed a sharp collective eye for objects that stand out. We still seek out that glint of gold in the hills, but the reflex is trained on digital innovations these days.

Our collective ability to see standouts has evolved into an appreciation for disruption. Nowhere is that more apparent than in HR tech and breakthrough technology. Investors plunged more than $2 billion into HR tech systems and platforms in 2016, according to venture capitalist resource CB Insights. HR tech continues to grow — and this growth will drive faster transformation in a field that needs to grow faster.

  1. The Strongest Do Survive. Organizational culture owes a lot to Darwin. Yes, Amazon continues its accelerated behemoth takeover of retail — it just announced it’s buying Whole Foods, But equating strength with size and force is a misassumption.

We may not have a spare $13.7 billion to invest in swallowing up a potential future competitor, but we can achieve strength in other ways. The top companies aren’t those who use survival of the fittest to justify bad leadership, or put people last. Companies are only as good as their workforce — and in a talent crisis where retention is high on our list of nervous-making concerns, that means engaging a workforce and incorporating people-centered core values into strategy.

One more trait: we love to have fun. As a tribe, we need to laugh. We need to smile. We need to breathe. Some of us are better at kicking back than others. But for the workaholics among us — and you know who you are — make sure you have the chance to relax. And don’t miss your fight.

This article was originally published on Forbes.