NMSU researcher finds tribal values have much to offer business world

March 27, 2013 by Janet Perez, NMSU News Center

While existing side-by-side, Native American tribal life and the business world beyond it often seem to be worlds apart.

However, one New Mexico State University faculty member has discovered some surprising similarities between traditional tribal values and those of the outside business world.

Grace Ann Rosile, an associate professor of management at NMSU’s College of Business, has been a Daniels Fund Ethics fellow since 2010, when the university received a $1.25 million grant to develop a principle-based ethics program over five years. The grant is part of the Daniels Fund Ethics Initiative, whose goal is to strengthen principle-based ethics education and foster a high standard of ethics in young people.

“I was so surprised and pleased to see how the Daniels ideas about ethics overlapped so much with traditional tribal values,” Rosile said.

Rosile is studying how Native American tribal values can be applied in today’s business world. Today, technology has created a “global village” and these ancient ethical perspectives, which come from tribal communities, suddenly seem very relevant again.

Entrepreneurs can navigate the outside business world while remaining true to their tribal beliefs.

“When I first started studying this, there was very little written about tribal values as they relate to the conduct of business,” Rosile said. “In the past, there was often an assumption (by Native Americans) that if you wanted to stay true to your Native values you couldn’t sell out to the business world, or you shouldn’t. What I’m trying to show is there are now some Native scholars and some practicing business people who say, ‘You know, maybe we can, and here are some ideas and some ways that we can be successful in the Western business world and still stay true to tribal values.’”

Rosile adds that the reverse also is true: Traditional businesses can learn a lot from traditional tribal values.

In the paper, “Comparing Daniels Principles of Business Ethics and Tribal Ethics,” Rosile and her co-authors, NMSU colleagues Don Pepion, associate professor of anthropology and a member of the Blackfeet Tribe; David Boje, business professor; and Joe Gladstone, assistant professor of public health administration and member of the Blackfeet and Nez Perce tribes, identified “Eight Aspects of Tribal Wisdom for Business Ethics.”

Rosile noted that each tribe is very different and, in general, she has not found any lists of principles common to all or even to many tribes. However, some common values, beliefs and practices exist and have been cited in the works of Native scholars. From these bits and pieces, Rosile and her co-authors created a list to summarize how tribal values might be applied in business settings:

  • Relationships — Relationships are of primary importance and the key to survival.
  • Gifting rather than Getting — Giving is valued and conveys higher status than getting.
  • Non-acquisitiveness — The wealth economy discourages hoarding because there is “enough,” and sharing and gifting is more important.
  • Usefulness — Use is more important than possession, thus community property is common.
  • Egalitarianism over Hierarchy — Equality of voice contributes to consensus and unity.
  • Trust — Trust is the foundation for good relationships and is highly valued.
  • Disclosure — Trading partners volunteer information to build relationships.
  • Barter systems — Barter emphasizes usefulness of goods rather than accumulation.

With such similarities, why can business transactions between Native Americans and what Rosile describes as the “Euro-Western” world be so fraught with misunderstandings?

The main reason is one of emphasis and context. The “Eight Aspects of Tribal Wisdom for Business Ethics” in reality encompass all parts of Native American life — there is no separation of everyday life and the business world.

“I think what really impressed me when I looked at the Daniels Principles for Ethics, is that these were all things that I had seen discussed as tribal values,” Rosile said. “If we start from the point of common values, maybe we can find ways of doing business that don’t lead us into these messy conflicts. They are universal values and in different contexts they are all applied differently.”

An example is the tribal tradition of gifting, sharing or altruism.

“There are some similarities, but there is also a significant difference in emphasis on the idea of giving away instead of making profit,” Rosile said. “(Among tribes) giving back to the community is just as important as making a profit. Companies now are discovering that by giving things away they can enhance their business. It’s a different perspective and different emphasis that is becoming more and more relevant today.”

But there are some differences that may be harder to bridge. For instance, full disclosure among tribal members may directly contradict “don’t-ask-don’t tell” policies or “Buyer Beware” approaches still found too often in the business world.

“In the Native community, if you withheld some information that was relevant, it would be viewed as a strong violation of a cultural norm; it would be viewed as something that affects all of us, not just one,” Rosile said. “Whereas in our Western view, a lot of times it’s, ‘Well, this is just my business. If I lie, it’s only me; it’s not affecting you.’”

Still, Rosile believes that finding and working with the similarities will likely be the key to success as more and more tribal members venture to build entrepreneurial enterprises that have business relationships both on and off tribal lands.

“I think that is an ongoing struggle within tribes,” Rosile said. “Their ways are constantly adapting and they have had to address this issue of how can we be successful in a world dominated by a different set of cultural values. At the same time, if traditional businesses paid more attention to relationships, to building trust and building community, which are the roots of tribal values, then I think we would all benefit.”

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