“Build up hope so you’ll all be together in this, no one left out, no one left behind.”
1 Thessalonians 5:11

The Cajun Navy, an informal network of good Samaritans with small watercraft, mobilized once again in the last few weeks—this time to help the victims of Hurricanes Florence and Michael. Formed as a response to Katrina in 2005, the so-called Cajun Navy has saved thousands of stranded people and lives. Their emergent activity, now an integral component of hurricane disaster relief, has similar characteristics to what many Amish families experience with barn-raising when disaster strikes in their communities.

You may wonder what encourages these men and women to help neighbors…some of whom they don’t even know. Research by the Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware suggests that their behaviors of collaboration, generosity, encouragement and kindness are actually typical for groups of people who bond over a common tragedy or need.

Often, leaders want to transform employee and team cultures to model similar collaboration and helpfulness. Yet, with today’s complexity, time compression and self-focus, many leaders struggle to build desired cultures across departmental boundaries. To encourage emergent “barn-raising” behaviors, let’s apply five lessons from the ordinary citizens who transform into everyday heroes as members of the Cajun-Navy brigade and Amish barn-raisers.

1. Structure short-term social engagements. Rather than long-term team assignments, look for time-bound projects with a common goal that includes social interaction. The satisfaction of quick wins helps participants gain greater enjoyment about the project and greater personal satisfaction of a job well-done and/or objective achieved. A barn raising, for example, with preparation ahead of time, is usually completed in one-day. It is experienced as a “frolic” and certainly includes social interaction. In the Amish and/or Mennonite communities, other examples include quilting bees and food preparation, such as canning, baking or shelling peas.

2. Ensure a mutually beneficial activity. Both brigades and barn-raisings inspire volunteers in part because they understand the potential for future reciprocity and/or the favor is being repaid from help already received. Leaders need to identify projects that are valued by all participants and include team members who anticipate working together again in the future. Consider how each project might build on another, for example to reduce start-up time and create social bonding.

3. Everyone understands and agrees to social norms. Especially in the faith-based Amish culture, “Love thy neighbor as you love yourself” guides behavior. They believe in the inherent good in others and that others are participating for the right reasons. Business teams, too, need to establish norms for showing respect for the abilities and skills of others as well as a belief that everyone is there for the right reasons. While business leaders seek diversity of thought and contribution, they also need to consider selecting team members with similar values about work. Initiate a new team by inviting them to establish their own behaviors and norms for working together.

4. Keep the mission and customer in mind. In an emergency, it is very clear what needs to be done. The Cajun Navy mobilizes to save lives…human and animal. They approach the challenge with the tools and resources they know best…their boats and ingenuity. And, they never lose sight of what they’re there for and who they’re there to serve. They focus on their customer’s needs. Helping where needed ensures success of the mission. Similarly, newly formed teams need a clear focus with reminders about their true mission and the customers they serve.

5. Encourage shared leadership. With “barn-raising,” the process is often led by one to two master Amish “engineers,” who lay out plans for the barn and assure the materials are available. In addition, one or more leaders are nominated and then chosen “by lot” (i.e., randomly), rather than by vote, to lead. Nominations are based on experience and/or skills and each person is expected to rise to the responsibility and accountability of the role. Business leaders can adopt a similar approach. Avoid designating a leader for the team. Instead, provide guidance and/or training about self-directed teams who call upon and engage skills and competencies as needed.

As you consider these Five Lessons from the Cajun Navy and Barn Raisers, remember their commonality is a clear shared-purpose. They understand that a community is stronger than the individual and that they always achieve more working together than they do by working alone. You, too, can build business cultural communities that focus on a shared mission and where members collaborate, encourage and have each other’s backs.

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