Tribalism and Leadership. What is Tribalism, and why does it hold… | by Shy Alter | Jul, 2022

What is Tribalism, and why does it hold such a critical place in the leadership world?

“People are tribal. The more settled things are, the bigger the tribes can be. The churn comes, and the tribes get small again.” — Amos Burton, The Expanse. Image credits: Author

Did ever wonder why tech companies love giving you T-shirts with their logo on them? Why are people willing to work insane hours while getting paid globally?

In addition to personal and professional reasons, one is based on the survival instinct of our ancestors. In his book “Sapiens,” Yuval Noah Harari claims that humans managed to reach the top of the food chain by embracing collaboration with strangers. Sounds familiar?

A company is essentially a group of strangers cooperating to gain market share. The most successful companies were the ones that had built a strong collaborative culture and were very successful at defining their own unique culture. However, there are so many companies out there. How can someone stay when there are so many options?

“Ants and bees can also work together in huge numbers, but they do so in a very rigid manner and only with close relatives. Wolves and chimpanzees cooperate far more flexibly than ants, but they can do so only with small numbers of other individuals that they know intimately. Sapiens can cooperate in extremely flexible ways with countless numbers of strangers. That’s why Sapiens rule the world, whereas ants eat our leftovers and chimps are locked up in zoos and research laboratories.” — Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens.

Tribalism is a concept in anthropology that refers to a cultural phenomenon through which individuals create groups or organizations of a social nature. These groups or organizations enable individuals to identify and reaffirm themselves as part of something larger.

Leaders must acknowledge this tendency and its massive impact on the humans who work in their company. Tribalism exerts a two-way influence. People seek to leave a trace of their passage through the organization, and, in turn, the organization itself exerts influence on the person.

Are you getting what you are putting in?

In the current downtime, while tech companies keep cutting their staff, loyalty starts getting a negative connotation. There is a shame in this because loyalty can be rewarding if both sides are treated with respect.

In light of our tribal nature, I believe most of us are searching for a loyal relationship that will provide us safety (in different shapes and colors). I also believe companies can be an excellent place for that. How can you tell if this feelin’ flows both ways? In the recent downturn, many found themselves asking this question after they received an email thanking them for their time and wishing them good luck with what’s next (they got fired).

Managers must realize that when they ask for high loyalty, they must provide something in return. In some cases, it can be simple loyalty in return, but savvy managers know this is impossible when working in a fast-paced environment. The company needs to ensure its survival which means loyalty can’t be achieved at all costs. Appeal, you can give something else in return. It could be personal growth, respect, or excellent compensation. The main point is that loyalty doesn’t come for free, and as a manager, don’t rely on the ability to give it back.

Once loyalty is established, you have a moral obligation to avoid exploiting it. In many cases, people are reluctant to dissolve even toxic relationships that could be potentially destructive due to their fear of breaking social bonds. Managers often use that to keep an employee while they know it is bad for them or push them for 200% before a deadline while they know it’s a bullshit. Remember that loyalty takes time to build, but once removed, it is nearly impossible to regain.

Ride on your team’s self-confidence

“Chess and me, it’s hard to take them apart. It’s like my alter ego”. — Bobby Fischer

Working in tech can be very stressful. A very result-driven culture can leave people in a continuous state of Imposter syndrome. “Feelings of self-doubt and personal incompetence persist despite your education, experience, and accomplishments.” While managers can’t control the outside environment, they can create a shared identity that can promote self-confidence.

Employees can leverage their colleagues’ confidence and commitment with a second identity: “I’m proud to be part of this team; we make a difference together.” Creating a small tribe and a “team identity” can make people feel part of something bigger than them.

Refer to your team as “We.” We decided, we need, we will. Whenever possible, discuss things in the team’s channel. For example, when you need to allocate a new task for a team member, message them in the team’s channel. In addition, develop a team language, your way of speaking, and what you talk about.

“Change the language in the tribe, and you have changed the tribe itself.” ― Dave Logan, “Tribal Leadership: Leveraging Natural Groups to Build a Thriving Organization”

It is essential to balance that tribal mentality so as not to fall prey to the Us vs. Them mentality. As a result of Tribalism, you absolutely cannot avoid this. Therefore, ensure that your team has strong and stable connections with the “outside world.” Another critical warning is that the company identity should never come before the individual identity. This can end up in a homogeneous culture which does not accept diversity. Rather than replacing, augment.

Your team; your safety net

A team member once told me, “I feel like I’m supposed to be under pressure, but for some reason, I just don’t.” Their sense of belonging made them feel like this was a team responsibility rather than a personal one. People without a tribe may experience intense pressure since they do not have anyone to support them. Studies even suggest that belonging to organizationalness could mediate stress and post-trauma among firefighters 1, which are similar to burnout.

One way to measure the “quality” of a safe zone is by looking at how much the team shares its vulnerabilities. It’s a good sign if people share their failures and mistakes openly. But it’s a red flag if every meeting is cheerful and no one talks about negative topics.

Managers can help their team to develop that skill by providing relevant and authentic examples. Talking about uncomfortable topics and surfacing issues that are usually “backchanneled” will show the team that it’s OK to share.

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