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From Brazil's Samba Schools, Corporate Management Lessons

Latin Americans work better with people they know. This dynamic is at the heart of Brazilian samba schools that compete in annual Carnival parades, and may provide solid input for office dynamics and productivity in private companies.

Samba rehearsal for Carnival in Rio
Samba rehearsal for Carnival in Rio
Alfredo Behrens

RIO DE JANEIRO — For Brazilians, samba schools are management schools. As is often the case with people in emerging countries, Brazilians tend to form tight-knit groups, partly because of a deep-seated distrust of people they don't know. According to a study by World Values Survey, the number of people who trust someone they just met is five times lower in Brazil than in the United States.

As a pillar of cooperation, trust is crucial to team work. To avoid the "social trap," team members must all believe they will win if each of them is willing to cooperate. When people suspect their team members aren't doing their part, they're inclined to hold back and let others do the work. This suspicion arises most frequently when information is lacking, as is the case with big groups of people who don't know each other.

That's where samba schools have an advantage over the American management style companies largely favor. In samba schools, people are invited to participate in a group that has sprung out of a local community. All members know one another, or know someone who knows those they haven't yet met.

Because they are relatively small groups, it's easier to evaluate individual contributions. While samba schools organize parades of 4,000 people, they are each composed of branches of about 120 members, and these in turn consist of smaller groups of friends, colleagues and neighbors. These small groups facilitate the increase in scale: They can establish rules in keeping with the overall challenge, highlighting personal engagement without needing to measure performance.

Certainly, great effort is needed to coordinate even a small group of people. In samba schools, this is made easier as members share a clear objective — winning a Carnival parade prize — and because schools are run in a way that reflects members' culture. All this contributes to creating a strong sense of transcendence, which some have compared to a "religious" feeling.

While the public sees only the parade, the real pilgrimage takes place over the course of a year's teamwork. This is where Victor Turner's concept of comunitasemerges. True, winning is the goal, but it's rare to see a school win that wasn't already in the top four the previous year, which means that the parade effectively has 10 or so samba schools competing with no real chance of winning, and putting in a whole year's work for free. Ultimately, winning is the goal, but for samba participants, it's not the only source of motivation.

Modern corporations can't be run exactly like samba schools. For example, firms may need skills that are unavailable in their immediate vicinity. But when people don't trust people they don't know, borrowing some of samba schools' organizational wisdom can lead to greater corporate engagement — something that is currently lacking in Brazil and other countries. The samba school method also has the advantage of being free.

Business schools and companies in Latin America would do well to draw inspiration from their community organizations. These groups might just possess the secret to effective management for our countries, which are so culturally different from the U.S.

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