‘Britain is Merging BOAC and BEA as a Giant Airline’, read headlines in 1974. More than 15 years after that merger, I joined British Airways. Even after all that time people described themselves as ‘I’m BEA’ or ‘He’s BOAC’ as if that explained more or less anything – good or bad.  I was struck by that loyalty to … well, what exactly?  And I’ve seen it a lot in organisational life. Over the years, I’ve come to think of it as tribalism.

Kevin deLaplante, in a video ‘The Dangers of Tribalism’ describes a tribe as ‘a group of people that feel connected to each other in a meaningful way because they share something in common that matters to them. The connection can be based on just about anything kinship, ethnicity, religion, language, culture, ideology favourite sports team whatever.

What matters is that this connection binds individuals into a group that allows them to make a distinction between us members of the group and those who are not members of the group. When we talk about tribalism what we’re really talking about is a pattern of attitudes and behaviours that human beings tend to adopt when we come to identify with our tribes. In a nutshell we use the us/them distinction defined by tribal boundaries to make normative judgments: we’re good, they’re bad, we are right they’re wrong.’ (deLaplante’s video is excellent and he has an extensive list of references on the topic on his blog).

Tribal members share (or have shared in the past) a ‘collection of habits, practices, beliefs, arguments, and tensions that regulates and guides [them]’. Guidance comes from many sources ‘narratives, holidays, symbols and works of art that contain implicit and often unnoticed messages about how to feel, how to respond, how to divine meaning.’ (The quotes are from David Brooks, The Social Animal) the members benefit in some way – intrinsically or extrinsically – by virtue of their participation in the groups.

I see many tribes in organisations. They include profession tribes, team tribes, social group tribes, interest group tribes and prior organisation tribes. Often members indicate their tribal affiliation through symbols like lanyards and lapel pins. In some organisations ‘tribe’ is part of the vocabulary – look at Spotify’s Squads, Tribes, Chapters model. Like deLaplante, Mary McCrae, of the Tavistock Institute, notes that tribe membership brings many positives – ‘a sense of belonging, comfort and security for its members.  Those who belong commit themselves to the beliefs and values of the tribe.  Loyalty to the tribe stems from the sense of belonging to a familiar, like minded, and caring group’.

We touched on tribes and tribalism last week in a workshop I was facilitating. Afterwards a participant, emailed me, saying he thought tribalism was a particular issue in the organisation ‘because we have brought together different tribes and are trying to create one organisation’ (The organisation I am currently working with was formed from a mash-up of parts of various other organisations, plus a lot of newcomers who have no experience of the other organisations that now form part of the mix).

The discussion highlighted the downsides of tribalism which McCrae sees as ‘competition between groups for power and control over resources, roles of authority, boundaries, and policies that govern institutions.’ These are the ‘particular issues’ that the person who emailed me had in mind. It’s not an option to ignore these, neither is trying to form one organisation if that means aiming to eradicate tribes.

Robert Kovach, writing in the Harvard Business Review lists four downsides to tribalism:

  • Rock-throwing. Where teams are blaming each other, unjustly criticizing the others’ work or continually throwing rocks at one another.
  • Blaming the customer. Blaming the customer or end consumer occurs all too frequently, and can be another sign that inter-team rivalry is spiralling out of control.
  • Pushkin did it.” In Russia, when you don’t know who did something it is common to say “Pushkin did it.” The Dutch have something similar with the saying, “It was the dwarves.”
  • Refusal to work together. This is perhaps the most severe case of tribalism. When whole departments or organizations refuse to cooperate with one another.

I’ve also noticed

  • Turf defending. This is described brilliantly in Annette Simmon’s book, Territorial Games. I have a handout I use in workshops listing the 10 territorial games she discusses. I ask people to discusses whether they play that game, whether their peers do, whether their boss does, and if they’ve been a victim of someone playing that game on them. Games include ‘Information Manipulation’ and ‘Shunning’, that is ‘subtly (or not so subtly) excluding an individual in a way that punishes him or her; orchestrating a group’s behaviour so that another is treated like an outsider.’
  • Polarization. That stems from perceiving differences between tribes. This can lead to a (false) sense of superiority, and sometimes exclusion, bullying and discrimination.

Rosabeth Moss Kanter asks if the negative aspects of tribalism are inevitable and is optimistic that they are not, saying ‘Tribes are a source of identity, but when people belong to many overlapping groups, they are more likely to think broadly, as cosmopolitans. When they work together in mix-and-match structures and depend on the performance of people from other groups for their own success, they are more likely to empathize with differences rather than mistrust them. … Tribalism is not inevitable. We can civilize tendencies toward discrimination. But leaders must make it a priority.’

She offers some suggestions on how they might do this:

  • Make structural changes that eliminate silos, and non-diverse groups. (Watch the video A Tale of O on diversity)
  • Foster cross boundary interdependence ‘a shared task that all parties care about replaces tribal instincts with other motivations.’
  • Encourage cross-tribe coalition building in order to combine resources for mutually-beneficial initiatives, and a flow of people across them, so that everyone in the organization has multiple affiliations and has worked on numerous cross-sectional teams.
  • Find a common purpose that is inspiring and motivating, helping people transcend their differences. When backed up by incentives for achieving common goals, a sense of community helps override selfish interests.
  • Establish codes of conduct specifying community norms that should not be violated regardless of local traditions.
  • Encourage identification across the widest possible range of tribes/groups, rather than focused on a small closed group: think about how ‘products or pronouncements will be experienced by diverse constituencies and multiple ethnicities. It is hard to remain tribal when trying to be national, regional, and global.’

What’s your experience of tribalism in organisations? Is it something we should resist, eradicate, work with or embrace? Let me know.

Image: Tribalism