Employee Team-Building Lessons From the Grateful Dead

4 min read
Jun 29, 2015

Employee Team-Building Lessons from the Grateful Dead by TINYpulseThe “core four” surviving members of legendary rock band the Grateful Dead are playing their final reunion shows in Chicago on July 3, 4, and 5. The dates celebrate their 50th anniversary as a band and the 20th year since lead guitarist and vocalist Jerry Garcia’s death. I’ve been a Deadhead since catching my first show in 1979, when I was a high school student, and have seen dozens since. 

The Grateful Dead grew from the San Francisco hippie scene of the mid-1960s to become the biggest touring act in rock during the 1990s. Now, half a century after their founding, the Grateful Dead still sell tens of millions of dollars' worth of merchandise and recorded music a year, and band members tour constantly in their own ensembles as well as occasional reunion shows.

All businesses can learn about team building from the Grateful Dead’s unusual and highly successful playbook.

Build a Diverse Team

Some argue that the Grateful Dead were not the best musicians, but their deeply diverse backgrounds made for a powerful combination that created a unique sound unlike any other.

Jerry Garcia got his start playing bluegrass banjo, an influence that added to the Dead’s category-defying sound. Bassist Phil Lesh, on the other hand, began his career as a classical jazz musician who played trumpet and learned bass guitar “on the job” after joining the band early on. Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, the Grateful Dead’s first keyboard player, was the son of an R&B disc jockey who loved blues harmonica.

In addition to skilled musicians with diverse backgrounds, the Grateful Dead also tapped guitarist and singer Bob Weir when he was a 17-year-old high school dropout and musical novice. The mix of unique backgrounds, including fresh beginners unencumbered by conventional wisdom, proved to be a powerful combination.

I’ve noticed that many companies tend to hire similar people. For example, many organizations insist on an MBA for positions that don’t actually need the advanced degree. Or managers hire employees of a similar background because they are comfortable with people most like themselves.

In today’s world, things are changing fast, so like the Grateful Dead, you need a team composed of individuals with diverse, unique talents that didn’t necessarily originate in an academic program. You need some younger people who grew up with the Web and social media.

Many companies excel by bringing people on to the team who weren’t raised in the same country as the founders or executive team. A few highly analytical types (perhaps even someone with a jazz background) who speak the language of spreadsheets are a powerful addition to any team. In a perfect world, your team would have folks with a deep reach in the industry and marketplace, as well as some who are new and aren’t set in their ways. Look outside your comfort zone to fill in talent gaps.

Be Yourself

In an era when many bands were known for their outrageous costumes and slick on-stage personas, the Grateful Dead stood out. Shunning the glitter suits and makeup of glam rockers and the polished Mod look of the British bands, Grateful Dead members were simply themselves. Band members appeared on stage looking a lot like their fans: with long hair and scruffy beards, wearing jeans, t-shirts, and Birkenstocks. And the fans loved them for it. 

Stop hiding your corporate personality behind carefully scripted announcements, press releases, and events. And stop forbidding employees to showcase their talents to the world. Be yourself, and encourage your CEO and employees to be themselves. If you’ve got a quirky company culture, your marketplace will likely prefer that to the corporate façade you’re putting on. Eliminate the “corporate-ese” language from press releases and your website, and show more of who you are and what your company stands for.

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Rather than blocking employees from blogging and using social media tools, encourage them! Set loose guidelines for what they can post and then let them go for it. Your trust in them will be rewarded, as these employees will build their own followings that will eventually buy your products. If they (or you) make a mistake, it’s okay. Own up to it rather than hiding it — or worse yet, ignoring it. The benefits of the upside far outweigh the potential downside.

Just like the Grateful Dead, let people be themselves and watch the team succeed.

Do What You Love

We are taught as children that work and play are opposing forces in nature. Nonsense. It is ideal when work is like play! In fact, if you do what you love the way the Grateful did, you’ll never work a day in your life. 

But the sad fact is that people often end up in jobs they’re not passionate about because they’re living someone else’s dream — their mother-in-law’s, their competitive sister’s, their classmate’s — or they are playing to society’s ideal. When people are dreading life at work, they don’t make good team members.

You will have a much more productive team if you include choosing people with passion over people with "the best qualifications" as one a recruitment strategy. At many organizations, people might be stuck in positions that don’t fit them well. Often good people are in the wrong positions — and a clever HR executive can spot the potential. I remember that’s exactly what happened to me 20 years ago. I was in a Product Marketing role I didn’t enjoy, but as soon as I was put in charge of Public Relations, I thrived.

The Grateful Dead loved what they did when they played together. Even today, when they could sit at home and enjoy a comfortable retirement, all of the band members play dozens of gigs a year. And I can’t wait to see what they’ll do 50 years after their founding.



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