When Tribalism Infects your Company

Webster’s dictionary defines tribalism as: “loyalty to a tribe or other social group especially when combined with strong negative feelings for people outside the group.” Tribalism can be cultural, departmental, faith-based, political, and so on. Birds of a feather may flock together, but this doesn’t work when collaboration is needed. 

Cultural tribalism reflects a strong ethnic identity that possesses traditions, language and customs. This can lead people to exclude those outside their same culture. For the outgroup in the workplace, this can lead to a hostility, high turnover, and lower productivity. The BBC NEWS published an article Tribalism ‘rampant’ in Kenyan workplace which states “If you do not have somebody in a position who is from your tribe, you will not get into particular organizations.” Cultural tribalism is destructive and among the hardest problems to solve, for a wide variety of reasons.

Departmental tribalism is a little different, however there are common traits of conformity. In business colleagues from various departments, like marketing, production, front office or back office, need to work collectively. However, when everyone has their own objectives, it creates competition for resources, and sometimes  even competition for praise. Departmental tribalism can take a life of its own; this detracts from the strategic objectives of the organization.

Early warning signs of Tribalism:

  • Lack of collaboration. When friction appears between different teams of departments a proverbial line in the sand has been drawn. Sometimes teams will neither listen nor speak to one another because the disdain has become so strong between the groups. As an example, I once worked in a dental office where the front office was responsible for the scheduling. They consistently overbooked patients, leaving the back office team under tremendous pressure to calm the patients down, and still perform the necessary dental treatments.  The back office team repeatedly voiced their concerns, but to no avail. Then came the rebellion; the back-office team stopped rushing, leaving the patients to stew in the front lobby where the front office team would have to deal with the disgruntled patients. The two were no longer on speaking terms. It became a team vs. that team mentality.
  • The blame game. Do your teams  blame each other without communication amongst themselves? Corporate Psychologist Robert Kovach did a case study on tribalism and stated that teams who blame each other, unjustly criticizing or continually throwing rocks at each other present a clear sign of tribalism. Again, I will point to the dental office example.
  • Cultural Tribalism. Ethnicity, culture, values; there is something to be said for each of these, yet at their most extreme scenarios they can damage a team. A predominant group will have identifiers that exclude others, resulting in cultural tribalism. I worked with an assisted living facility that was experiencing tribalism, to the point that care for the residents was being compromised. Group ‘X’ was smaller then group ‘Y;’ however group ‘X’ was very culturally dominant and pushed down group ‘Y,’ which was very submissive. This was apparent when each group would ask for assistance; each group would most often call on their own group members for help. We found evidence of tribalism at lunch and holiday functions when each group sat on opposite sides of the halls. 

How can we reduce tribalism?

  • Neutral locations for collaboration. Neutral locations for a meeting allow for a more collaborative environment. Members from the same group should not sit next to one another. Why is this important? Look no further than a White House meetings between Democrats and Republicans whereby all Democrats are on one side of the table and Republicans are on the other; its as if two walls are confronting one another with each holding a position and appearing unified. This is very adversarial.
  • Frequently express common goals.  Express common goals to teams and individuals. We can develop these ideals through training and team building. Team building does not just mean a singular team but interdepartmental teams that rely on each other to complete tasks. I remember a time when I worked for company that held softball tournaments. The teams always consisted of staff vs. management; looking back, having staff compete against management was probably not a great idea.  It was great for morale, however, it may not have been great for reducing tribalism (us vs. them). A better way would be to mix the two groups creating WE. The same goes for meetings, mix it up.
  • Teamwork/ Balance. Teams need to balance differences, fighting to advance your power can provoke an equal response. What is best to remember is cohesion; communal identity within a team creates a cooperation, sharing and respect. It is utopian to believe there will not be any forms of conflict, however implementing balance could bring about “good” conflict.

Realistically, whether real or perceived, tribalism can and will divide teams. It will render them ineffective. Hire people who are willing to listen to new ideas, discuss common goals, who have a willingness to evolve, and have the capacity to express themselves positively. A good team develops mutual trust and shares in success and failures, alway striving to improve. Above all else, be an effective listener, you will be amazed at what you can learn when you stop talking.

As always, I look forward to hearing your comments and opinions.

Lee Stotts

Conflict Analyst

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