Where There's No Friction There's Flow: The Four Pillars of the Fearless Tribe


Where There's No Friction There's Flow: The Four Pillars of the Fearless Tribe

January 17, 2019

Bulldog Drummond Practicing Uncommon Sense

We’re a team of business leaders, design thinkers, writers and brand strategists committed to doing things in uncommon ways. We’re curious about the people and places around us and fascinated by the search for what’s next. 

Written by Garry Ridge

Multiple leadership styles and philosophies may bring any CEO the desired results of market performance, both on Main and Wall Streets. But the options get fewer and fewer as the CEO puts sustainable performance on the agenda. Throw in the ideal of a cultural sense of ease, passion, commitment that would permeate all the stakeholders of the company’s activities throughout time and throughout the world, and you have only one leadership style option that will work:

The CEO must be completely dedicated to creating and sustaining a culture where all participants are free to focus, innovate, speak up, be themselves, make mistakes, be happy at work, and wholeheartedly align their personal purpose with the company’s purpose. This is the requirement, even during those rare periods that demand a certain amount of personal sacrifice and faith in the leadership.

How does this kind of commitment to a positive culture at a macro level over time bring sustainability to the CEO’s expectations for the company’s success year over year, decade over decade? This commitment to a cultural consistency creates a community of interdependent and mutually supportive people. At WD-40 Company we call this community our tribe. Tribe members bring to their jobs, careers, relationships and lives the following critical attributes:

  • Fearlessness
  • Resilience
  • Trust
  • Drive for ongoing learning and teaching
  • Enthusiastic engagement while working, lavish celebration at the success of initiatives
  • Selflessness (to a healthy, reasonable extent) in service of the community priorities and fellow tribe members
  • Clarity of mission
  • Dedication to purpose
  • Joyful tapestry of unity and belonging that crosses oceans, spans time zones, melts national boundaries, and embraces the singular human spirit that makes up the WD-40 Company tribe.

What emerges from this culture – beyond the obviously desirable day-to-day experience of working with people we care about – is that truly enviable performance history on every key metric that drives WD-40 Company’s success story. Wherever I go, anywhere in the world, I am asked, “How do you do that?”

To coin a phrase: The process is simple. But it’s not easy. It requires commitment to high ideals at times when less-committed leaders might fold in pursuit of one more percentage point in profit, or when they must choose among an environmentally responsible ingredient, profit margin, or affordable price point for the consumer.

The business literature is filled with many fine stories of efforts that CEOs make to recruit their employees in the mission of creating a business success story. From the long-term, sincere efforts to the short-term gimmicky attempts, there is no shortage of ideas you can try in your own company. But from what I have found over time is that nothing will hold up in any kind of meaningful way until four fundamentals are in place.

I call them the Four Pillars of the Fearless Tribe. Imagine, for a moment, the sub-basement of a spectacular skyscraper. It’s not so glamorous down there, to be sure. It’s mostly bland concrete, specially formulated and poured to take on the weight of all that is above – all those details and amenities selected to please, inspire, communicate, transform, enlighten, and ignite the imagination of all who interact with the building and its occupants.

But you are unlikely to see any of that in the sub-basement. What you do see are massive, unadorned pillars. Considering the accumulated weight of all that they hold up, there are surprisingly few. In fact, the fewer the pillars, the better the engineering.

Such is also the case for the Four Pillars of the Fearless Tribe. As we have engineered the WD-40 Company’s cultural structure over time, we found that these four pillars hold up the entire experience of what it means to do business within the company. Each pillar is critical. They are:

  • Care
  • Candor
  • Accountability
  • Responsibility

These are the essential structural supports, providing a distributed foundation under emotional weight that organizational psychologists refer to as psychological safety inside the workplace. In this document, I will first tell the story of WD-40 Company’s success in metrics form. Then I will introduce to you the basic concepts of psychological safety as the academics are reporting on it today. And finally, I will describe our own four pillars, as we have identified them to be essential to holding up the culture that makes the WD-40 Company the joyful, successful tribe that it is today.

What If All Your Employees Loved Coming to Work Every Day?

To explore our tribal culture as the “secret sauce” of our successes, the first thing to do is define what we at WD-40 Company mean by the word “tribe”. Simon Sinek talks about a “circle of safety,” in which all the participants are collected and protected by a defining mutual agreement of values, practices, mission, purpose, and ways of doing things. There is an ongoing sense of belonging that is as consistent and dependable in the environment as the air we breathe. Once we are accepted into the group, we trust each other. We share knowledge freely and openly. We assume the best of each other's intentions at all times. We sacrifice for each other. We celebrate with each other. We honor our contributions as individuals without losing sight of the valuable, positive impact on the entire community. While no organization can achieve this state constantly or without being tested, our objective is to work toward achieving this condition at least 95% of the time.

In his book, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, Sebastian Junger puts it this way: “The earliest and most basic definition of community – of tribe – would be the group of people that you both help feed and help defend.”

Taking the effort to define and create a tribe in your company has obvious significant and unmistakable rewards. Dave Logan, John King, and Halee Fischer-Wright specify them beautifully in their book, Tribal Leadership: Leveraging Natural Groups to Build a Thriving Organization:

  • People collaborate and work toward a noble cause, propelled from their values.
  • Fear and stress go down as the “interpersonal friction” of working together decreases.
  • The entire tribe shifts from resisting leadership to seeking it out.
  • People seek employment in the company and stay, taking the company a long way toward winning the war for talent.
  • People’s engagement in work increases, and they go from “quit on the job but still on the payroll” to fully participating.
  • Organizational learning becomes effortless, with the tribe actively teaching its members the latest thinking and practices.
  • People’s overall health statistics improve. Injury rates and sick days go down.
  • Setting and implementing a successful competitive strategy becomes stunningly easy as people’s aspirations, knowledge of the market, and creativity are unlocked and shared.
  • People report feeling more alive and having more fun.

How has our commitment to a tribal culture manifested itself in the experience of working at WD-40 Company and our market performance? That story is best told by the results of our 2018 Employee Engagement Index. Below are just some of the 26 queries that we have identified as key to our performance both in the marketplace globally and our own noble cause of making sure we are providing a workplace culture where our employees feel safe, supported, appreciated, inspired, innovative, curious, and optimistic. About 94% of global employees completed this survey, in seven languages:

"I am clear on the company's goals" 97.2%

"I am excited about WD-40 Company's future direction." 93.4%

"WD-40 Company encourages employees to continually imrpove in their job." 92.9%

"I understand how my job contributes to acheiving WD-40 Company's goals." 97.9%

"I know what results are expected of me." 97.4%

"I feel my opinions and values are a good fit with the WD-40 Company culture." 98.1%

And, my personal favorite:

“I love to tell people that I work for WD-40 Company.” 99.0%

All these answers are experience-based. The way our tribe members experience their time at WD-40 Company shapes their perceptions of the company, and whether they feel it is a good place for them to invest their time, talents, and passion. Providing those experiences is, to all of us at WD-40 Company, a sacred responsibility for multiple reasons. We recognize that people spend the majority of their waking hours at work. So why shouldn’t they feel fully fulfilled and supported by people they know, like, trust and respect? Don’t we all deserve that daily expectation as part of our natural inheritance as humans in this world? And they bring those positive feelings home to their families at the end of the day. So we know that our tribe members’ positive feelings about the work they do contribute to the optimism that their family members carry with them into their own futures.

How does this tribal engagement manifest in company performance? There is abundant literature showing the linkage between high engagement scores and company performance across companies and industries. So I’ll just focus on what we’re experiencing at WD-40 Company:

Over the past 20 years that we have committed to these foundations, our sales have quadrupled. Our market cap has increased from $250 million to nearly $2.5 billion. And during these last two decades, our annual compounded growth rate of total shareholder return is 15%.

The proof of the pudding, as they say, is in the eating. Those numbers represent a whole lot of product. But our second most important value is, “We create positive lasting memories in all of our relationships.” Engagement, and thus personal investment in the organization, stems from positive experiences within the tribe, which yields the applause of financial performance.

Psychological Safety – A Brief Introduction

In this dynamic environment, successful organizations need to be managed as complex adaptive systems rather than as intricate controlled machines. -Amy C. Edmondson, Teaming: How Organizations Learn, Innovate, and Compete in the Knowledge Economy

It’s been almost a century since productivity experts turned their focus on how companies can optimize production by improving the human aspect of the organizational systems. In the earliest decades, their attention was on how humans and machines could interact better, incremental improvement by incremental improvement – with humans standing in the service of the machines. Then, predictably, as the Knowledge Economy took predominance over the manufacturing sector, the focus was turned to how individual employees could perform better as separate functional entities – their workstations being primarily between their ears – generating each company’s competitive edge through innovative, original thinking.

Consequently, over time, organizational psychologists and corporate leaders are coming to fully realize the critical role that mental health plays in a company’s performance. As the Knowledge Economy evolves, we leaders are beginning to acknowledge – even, for some of us, embrace – our roles in creating a cultural experience where our people are free to contribute their best because they feel safe. As Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs has proven, without a sense of safety (survival, family preservation), it's impossible to think long term and to stay engaged. After those basic, hygienic needs are met, people then need to feel that they belong to a welcoming, non-judging tribe, where they can count on the support of others. Then they can focus on their performance, secure in the knowledge that their community of colleagues – their tribe – wish them the very best. And the feeling is reciprocal.

This is called psychological safety, an expression first introduced by the organizational culture pioneer Edgar Schein. Amy Edmondson, the Novartis Professor of Leadership at Harvard Business School, has subsequently developed this concept to encompass the entire team experience. Edmondson’s research encourages a shift in focus from production (which she calls “organizing to execute”) to a “new way of working that supports collaboration, innovation, and organizational learning.”

“Learning in today’s organizations involves what’s called reciprocal interdependence, where back-and-forth communications are essential to getting the work done,” Edmondson writes in Teaming, outlining workplace conditions where a psychologically safe culture is essential:

  • When the work requires people to juggle multiple objectives with minimal oversight.
  • When people must be able to shift from one situation to another while maintaining high levels of communication and tight coordination.
  • When it is helpful to integrate perspectives from different disciplines.
  • When collaborating across dispersed locations.
  • When pre-planned coordination is impossible or unrealistic due to the changing nature of the work.
  • When complex information must be processed, synthesized, and put to good use quickly.

What culture in today’s global business environment does not have any of the elements that require team members to work together freely, generously, and fearlessly? And yet, there are so many opportunities inside every business, within every business day, where the best of intentions, the best of ideas can go to smash because of a misunderstanding or betrayed trust.

Edmondson adds, “The knowledge-based economy only works well when it restores workers on all levels to self-respecting, self-determining adulthood.”

For this to be effective, they need to feel safe – not only physically safe but emotionally secure to focus on their work and bring new ideas to the table without fear of retribution. Just as we at WD-40 Company celebrate what we call the learning moment, Edmondson calls leaders’ attention to the need for companies to emphasize their value on learning without reprisal as a key component to the psychologically safe culture.

“This calls for workers who know how to experiment, how to think on their feet, how to work in the absence of rules, and how to adapt quickly,” she writes. “Knowledge, changing quickly within disciplines, becomes even messier and more uncertain when integrated across disciplines…to get things done in the new workplace. Creating an appropriate environment for teaming and learning requires different management skills and expectations from those required in a repetitive task environment…today’s managers need employees to be problem solvers and experimenters, not mere conformers.”

To cultivate a culture of these confident, independent, interdependent team members, leaders are increasingly recognizing the need for their entire community of talent to be integrated by the same sets of values and expectations. When those are in place, they are free to focus, create, and bring your company to the fore in its competitiveness and ability to attract and retain the very best talent to continue the march toward the future.

At WD-40 Company, this culture starts with those Four Pillars of the Fearless Tribe.

The Four Pillars Explained

"Knowledge is only rumor until it lives in the bones."
Asaro tribe in Papua New Guinea, as quoted by Brene Brown, Dare to Lead

The success stories of other companies are especially interesting when they carry indicators of how we can transform their examples into actionable insights to apply to our own organizations. It’s one thing to know the success metrics of highly admired companies such as WD-40, but the real value is understanding the ways you can duplicate WD-40 Company’s approach to the extent that’s appropriate to your business.

Your culture is different, as it should be. So copying WD-40 Company’s example in all its details – as you might a cookbook recipe – could set you up for failure. However, the foundational pillars that I introduced above are duplicable anywhere. No matter your industry, business, market, demographics, geographic location, these four pillars will support your own culture where your people will be proud to go to work every day. Install these four pillars, and you will have the foundational support you need to create the business that all your stakeholders will be proud to be associated with.


"Life is short. Do whatever you can to help people - not for status, but because the 95-year-old you will be proud if you did help people and disappointed if you didn't." -Marshall Goldsmith

Imagine the company environment where you and your people go to work every day, as a tribe you make a contribution for something bigger than yourself, you learn something new, you feel safe, and you go home happy. That’s what a caring organization is.

As I’ve witnessed the concept of Care come alive at WD-40 Company, I see our commitment to creating that caring organization flip all the levers that make life inside a healthy community a good, rewarding, fulfilling place to be. The caring culture is an environment where people are given the latitude to apply the principles of basic human kindness, gratitude for all that we have, the pursuit of justice, trust, transparency in our relationships throughout the organization, and the safe experience of honest conversation (which we will explore further in the next pillar – which is Candor).

Let’s first explore what the caring organization is not: It’s not Friday night gatherings where we all sing Kumbaya. It’s not about making decisions that have the least amount of negative impact on individual self-interests in the short-term. The caring organization is not a hug, a flower, or a brownie to soothe hurt feelings. The caring organization is not about creating a narrative where the CEO feels good about having the reputation for being a caring leader, at the expense of longer-term objectives.

There will be tough decisions. The caring organization strikes a balance between being tough-minded and tenderhearted. It’s unconditional love – to the extent appropriate in a business setting – combined with the commitment to doing what you need to do to keep people safe. The caring organization creates the environment that expects you to do what you must to execute on a rigorous business plan so that it endures over time. Caring also means that every tribe member has a responsibility to care about everybody else.

When I consider the fundamental elements of the caring organization, along with its most basic promise, the word trust comes to mind. It is the ultimate value proposition of the caring organization. To break this concept down in actionable components, we draw from Cynthia Olmstead’s Trust Model, as described in Trust Works!, the book she wrote with Ken Blanchard and Martha Lawrence. It follows the simple ABCD format:

A – Are you able? Are you competent?

B – Are you believable? Do your actions reflect your words?

C – Are you connected? Do you take time to be with people in a meaningful, emotionally authentic way?

D – Are you dependable? Do you do what you say you’re going to do? Can people rely on you?

Trust is the fundamental experience of the caring community. When you have trust, you have a tribe who will trust that you have their best interests always at heart. They will follow you into high-risk, long-term territory where great business outcomes will be found.


"The void created by the failure to communicate is soon filled with poison, drivel, and misrepresentation." -C. Northcote Parkinson

The second element in Olmstead’s Trust Model is B for believable. A culture where everyone is believable (not just the leaders) is one where everyone feels safe to speak their truth as they know it. This doesn’t automatically presume that everyone will agree with each version of the stated truth. But without a culture of safety where everyone can be counted on to express themselves, the entire community will forfeit the enriching benefit of all points of view.

And, as Parkinson famously noted, the result of restrained truth is a toxic stew of half-truths, misunderstandings, critical decisions made based on only partial information, fractured relationships, stifled passions, and, before long, the regrettable departure of your most cherished talent.

This pillar of Candor shows up in actual behaviors: No lying, no faking, no hiding. Period. How this shows up to the leaders: They must always be prepared to be open and receptive to unpleasant information. How this shows up to the tribe as a whole: Each tribe member feels safe to take the risk of speaking the truth. In fact, when this pillar is installed correctly, on a cultural level, each tribe member feels more at risk for not speaking up.

The safety is in the communication. This is the open avenue to delivering the best self that every tribe member has. Truth, told respectfully and with positive intent, creates safety.

Most people don’t consider themselves to be liars. But it’s safe to say that many people will fake and/or hide when they feel they must protect their best self-interests. They fear reprisal.

Faking is simply not being true to yourself and your values. We’ve all heard, “Fake it until you make it.” People think, “I’m just going to fake this because I’m afraid that people will see that I don’t know something everyone else seems to know [for the record, they could be faking as well].” Or, “People will think less of me when they realize that I’m the only one in the room who has a completely different perspective on this matter.”

Hiding occurs when there is something they don’t disclose because there is fear of failure; fear of some sort of negative reaction, either from the tribe or tribe leaders; or fear of being caught in having done the wrong thing – or the right thing wrong.

In the psychologically safe workplace, we all hold dear the principle that when we behave in good faith and with good intentions, there is nothing we could do that would cause us to hide. And the spirit of the learning moment, which is such a crucial component of the psychologically safe workplace, is being true to ourselves and sharing our error with our tribe members. When we are, we are bringing additional wisdom and knowledge to the group as a whole. If we hide our mistakes, we deprive our entire team of essential learning.

As we have discussed above, the essential value of the psychologically safe workplace is the promotion of flow by the absence of friction. A workplace culture devoid of trust is an experience filled with friction. Candor removes that lack of clarity, deletes the confusion, smooths the surfaces of engagement of the rough splintery texture of emotional sticking points. And candor sets the stage for clear exchange of ideas. This is the value that promotes a high-performing workplace culture.

This isn’t to say that candor-based conversations are easy. Some can be tough to initiate, some even tougher to be on the receiving end. Candor is not permission to be brutal, in the name of being honest. Candor must be accompanied by caring. All tribe members – especially leaders – should take extra care to fill the emotional bank accounts of their colleagues with positivity and supportive relationship interactions. This way, when the time comes for a conversation that requires uncomfortable candor, the trust is already there. Even the toughest conversation will result in strengthened trust that will prevail over the momentary discomfort of disclosure and discussion.

(For additional insight on this topic, read my blog post, When Caring Collides With Candor.)


"Accountability is hard. Blame is easy. One builds trust. The other destroys it." -Simon Sinek

It seems that in these modern times, accountability is seen as a negative thing – an occasion to punish someone should that person fall short of the agreed upon standard or goal. That person is on the hot seat, and now must account for their disappointing performance.

At WD-40 Company, we have a different relationship with the word accountability. We see it as a two-way street in which leaders and their direct reports equally hold ownership of the way we perform our duties and what outcomes our efforts lead to. For this reason, for example, we tell our leaders that their job is to make sure their direct reports have everything they need to succeed in their jobs (for more information, read my blog post, Don't Mark My Paper, Help Me Get an A). And all our tribe members hold ownership of making sure they have what they need to succeed and lead the company to its fulfilled objectives.

Accountability, as a pillar, is a mutual discipline. But it’s not the occasion to be disciplined. The disciplined commitment to results itself is, in practice, a freedom of sorts. When the company is committed to promoting accountability in its tribe, the individuals who demonstrate accountability also hold permission to do whatever is necessary to meet that accountability.

WD-40 Company’s Maniac Pledge is an example of this philosophy in action. Years ago, a direct report spent a great deal of time explaining to me why a goal was not accomplished within the agreed-upon time. The blame was placed on a lack of critical information required to take the necessary action. After hearing the tribe member out, I observed the simple truth out loud, “In the same amount of time it took you to explain to me why this commitment didn’t happen, you could have acquired the information you needed to get the job done.”

And at that moment the Maniac Pledge was born, named after Aussie golfer Greg Norman, who was known for his maniac spirit. It reads this way:

I am responsible for taking action, asking questions, getting answers, and making decisions. I won’t wait for someone to tell me. If I need to know, I’m responsible for asking. I have no right to be offended that I didn’t “get this sooner.” If I’m doing something others should know about, I’m responsible for telling them.

This spells freedom – the freedom that our tribe members feel is necessary to get their job done and meet their obligations to their own direct reports, as well as to their direct supervisors. In our tribe, we don't have the victim's attitude; there are many reasons and no excuses. We face the facts, learn and move to improve.

To us at WD-40 Company, accountability is manifested by the commitment that each tribe member holds in carrying through with their commitments. It is an understanding and expectation culturally that each one of us will own the desired outcome and all the steps required to achieve that outcome. For both ourselves and for the people throughout the organization chart who depend on us to help them be successful as well.

Accountability is achievement. But it’s also learning that we are responsible for sharing with the rest of the tribe. And the community celebration when that outcome is realized.

It’s fashionable to talk about “accountability partners” today. These are people we meet at the gym, on volunteer teams or in work groups who we must rely upon on regularly for mutual support in accomplishing our goals. But, really, our first accountability partner is the face in the mirror. Are we, as individuals, at peace with our actions and choices? If we have a face-to-face conversation (with our own faces) about how well we honor integrity to ourselves, how will we hold up in the investigation? As we say at WD-40 Company, when things go right, look out the window to find all the other people who contributed. When something goes awry, look in the mirror first.

We are each our own supervisors. And we are each our own direct reports. Are we giving ourselves what we need to make sure we succeed and that we help our company succeed?


"Too many leaders act as if the sheep … their people … are there for the benefit of the shepherd, not that the shepherd has responsibility for the sheep." -Ken Blanchard

Let’s revisit the Maniac Pledge one more time. You probably have noticed that each item of the Pledge is driven by the words, “I am responsible for….” Responsible appears three times in the Maniac Pledge. In Accountability we speak of the outcome. In Responsibility, we speak of the relationship each tribe member has to the ideal that generates the outcome.

Simply put, Responsibility is a turbo-charged version of Accountability. As a tribe, now that we know what we’re accountable for, it’s our responsibility to make sure those desirable outcomes are actually realized. We each take personal ownership of the outcomes, and it’s up to each of us to do whatever it takes to make it happen. Consequences (rewards and negative feedback in its variety of forms) are attached to the Responsibility pillar.

Responsibility is each tribe member’s personal relationship to their role in realizing the ideal outcome. It demands that each tribe member respond with the answer “me,” when the world poses the question, “Who is there to act?”

When it comes to psychological safety inside the workplace, when each tribe member is confident that everyone else shares responsibility in the company’s success, the entire community feels safe to invest their hearts, minds, talents, efforts, risks in realizing the company vision that everyone agreed to. Everyone has their part and role. And everyone performs exactly as expected, because everyone shares the responsibility of a successful outcome.

I’m reminded of a strategy in rugby called the blind pass. In American football, even non-fans know how marvelous it is to watch as a quarterback throws a long pass into seemingly empty air – but with every expectation that a team member is on his way and will be positioned in the right place to receive the ball when it ends its flight and drops into his hands. You don’t have to be an expert football fan to be impressed by the skill, strength, accuracy and teamwork of that play.

Well, in Australian rugby, that pass is basically performed backward – hence the name blind pass. The quarterback is running, but throws the ball backward, without being able to see whether there is going to be a team member likely to receive the ball. That is responsibility in action because the quarterback is psychologically safe in trusting that the pass will be completed and the objective of the play will be accomplished. There will be no wasted time, motion, effort, faith, trust, or ambition because everyone holds the assumption that the ideal of responsibility is equally shared amongst them all.

Now You Have a Foundation

These four pillars are your foundation, upon which you can build strong and enduringly positive relationships among people who rely on your leadership. If you are the CEO, you have the highest likelihood of being able to spread this cultural foundation throughout the organization. If you are not the CEO, you can still influence other leaders by your example. People will want to work for you. When you have openings, internal candidates will flock to apply. Your group will meet and exceed objectives more often. Your employees will be coveted by other departments. You'll have opportunities for personal growth daily, because you will be investing in your own growth by working diligently to build and preserve the pillars of a fearless tribe!

Original post. 

Bulldog Drummond Practicing Uncommon Sense

We’re a team of business leaders, design thinkers, writers and brand strategists committed to doing things in uncommon ways. We’re curious about the people and places around us and fascinated by the search for what’s next. 

Find The Purpose in What You Do and Your Purpose Will Find You by Happy Startup School
Uncommon Quotes to Inspire Leaders to Turn up the Love by Bulldog Drummond

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