What Your Company Culture Could Learn from Burning Man

July 7, 2015 Darcy Jacobsen

In late February, when tickets went on sale for Burning Man 2015, they sold all 40,000 passes in less than 45 minutes. That, I think we can all agree, is very high affective commitment to a culture.

In case you’re new to the Burning Man phenomena, it is the annual art and performance community that creates, overnight, a self-governing virtual city in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada. One week later that city vanishes, leaving virtually no trace of its existence.

It’s a mecca for punk-fueled artists and at times a wild party that colors well outside the mainstream lines… but it is also a transcendent and transformative community that attendees do not soon forget.

Burning Man may not be your cup of tea, but it is undeniably a highly magnetic culture. And much of the reason for that can be traced to a clear and passionate set of foundational values and beliefs, which are both widely publicized in the community and highly actionable.

It is that special and addictive culture which makes the event so remarkable, says writer Chris Taylor. “These are, generally speaking, people for whom the Golden Rule is a rather milquetoast suggestion. People who drop everything to help a stranger with a cut on his knee or a camp of strangers with a wind-torn shade tarp, or sign up to help some mad sculptor with insane ambitions of building a giant steel rocket ship, are a little beyond needing to be reminded to “do unto others.”

Burning Man is probably a far too radical culture for most of us to ever want to echo in the workplace, but there are underlying principles at work in the popular festival that deserve some attention and can help to significantly drive affective commitment within your culture.

Here are the 10 Principles of the Burning Man community, as featured on the event website, and how we think they might be encouraged in your culture:

Radical Inclusion: All our organizations could do with a little more radical inclusion and a little less siloing or cliquishness. What are you doing to break down barriers and build a more inclusive culture that “welcome(s) and respect(s) the stranger”?

Gifting: “Burning Man is devoted to acts of gift-giving,” say organizers. “The value of a gift is unconditional.” Giving to and “tirelessly helping” others, Adam Grant told us recently at WorkHuman, is “the key to hyperefficiency.” How are you enabling your employees to help and give to one another? (Hint: one great way to enable giving is reward and recognition.”

Decommodification: ”We stand ready to protect our culture from such exploitation. We resist the substitution of consumption for participatory experience,” says Burning Man. What are you doing to protect the integrity and authenticity of your culture?

Radical Self-reliance: How often are you encouraging your employees to problem solve for themselves and to take an active role in the creation and maintenance of your culture?

Radical Self-expression: Collaboration and respect are the hallmarks of creating a culture of self expression. How are you supporting and encouraging the unique voices of your team?

Communal Effort: How are you creating networks and relationships within your company to spark communal effort and strengthen your culture?

Civic Responsibility: “We value civil society,” say Burning Man organizers. We know that workers are more attracted to companies with strong missions and civic responsibility—that increase their own sense of meaning. How are you creating a more moral and virtuous organizational culture?

Leaving No Trace: An outgrowth of the above. What is your company doing to build sustainability in your eco-system and environment?

Participation: Burning Man have built their community on the idea that: “Everyone is invited to work. Everyone is invited to play.” The act of active participation, and simply spectating is not an option. Is spectating an option in your culture, or are people actively empowered and enabled to pull their own weight? are you also giving employees a chance to play?

Immediacy: “No idea can substitute for this experience,” say Burning Man organizers. Are you building a hands-on, experiential culture where people are encouraged to try (and even sometimes fail at) their ideas? Shouldn’t you?

How might adopting some of the principles of Burning Man transform and expand your culture? How might it build your own affective commitment?

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