Recognising and Repairing Tribalism in Companies

Jan 16, 2017

Company structures mimic society. Both promote greater visions, while humming along to today’s theories on leading and unifying individuals. Within companies we work in smaller teams that many of us consider family. However, our loyalty to our department can insulate us from other perspectives and priorities. By understanding the signals of tribalism within organisations, their unfavorable consequences can be mitigated by any employee.

The term tribe will forever hover between a positive and negative meaning. Numerous authors cite the benefits of tribes in this context, while other caution their development. Loyalty, identity and community are all words associated with tribes, as much as division, uniformity and protection. With our good intentions to uphold our functional tribes comes disconnection from others. Accordingly, I define a tribe as a collective of individuals who identify more with their group than the larger organisation.

The formation of a tribe can signal unbalance or insufficiency within a company. When looking at tribes in other non-nation contexts such as politics or fashion, tribes suggest the need to safeguard or incubate an idea or methodology. The broader society can absorb tribes better than a more condensed organisation such as a company. Many companies want the bond between team members to be strong and the team’s purpose to hit emotion chords. Nonetheless, both should contribute, not deter from, the greater vision of the whole.

Such behaviour can lead to teams prioritising themselves over the greater organisation. Examples of this include teams operating separately on company-shared tasks; making decisions for the betterment of the team, not company; or discarding feedback from other teams. Clear divides such as these are valuable signals. Whether you are the CEO or design intern, there are three areas to begin investigating: reevaluate the shared company vision, examine your own preconceptions and get closer to other departments.

Re-evaluate Shared Company Vision
A mission statement synchronises every employee. It is a goal that should balance practicality with inspiration. Twitter’s mission is, for example, “to give everyone the power to create and share ideas and information instantly, without barriers”. Everyone from the software developer to CEO understands how to make judgements for their immediate teams from this statement. If the vision is abstract or unclear, teams will create and live by their own. Having an open discussion and dissecting your company’s mission statement are the first places to start.

Examining Your Own Preconceptions
Since day one, each of us began constructing and testing our concepts on life. These ideas, ranging from how to deal with change to conversing with new colleagues, evolved from our own experiences and others teachings. Many of us hold these close to our identity, as it affects how we interact with and evaluate reality. It is never easy to separate our beliefs from our conclusions; however, it is a valuable skill in a business setting. By breaking down our preconceptions we can identify where our perspective points and how to expand its focus.

Get Closer to Other Departments
Bridging gaps, as the statement suggests, involves building connections. This can be done both through office layout and personal relationships. The office environment should promote unique areas per each team’s needs, while considering the proximity between departments. This ensures teams will stay physically connected. In addition to the structural, our seemingly normal friendships with colleagues outside of our teams carry a profound significance. By cultivating relationships with individuals in various departments we are expanding our understanding and empathy.

Tribalism is possible at every company, as with change and growth comes new circumstances. The cautionary signs are helpful for any employee, marking a need to reevaluate from multiple vantage points - high, low and at eye level. If your personal objective is to improve where you work and the people you work with, then take a moment to consider the relationship amongst the teams in your company. The reach of your individual efforts multiples with every colleague you inspire.

Where

Amsterdam, Netherlands

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