On tribalism

Tribalism? What does that have to do with work? I’ll admit that this wasn’t on my original list of blog topics. But it came up at work this last week, and so it was on my mind. And therefore, it’s what I’m writing for this week.

All of us have certain labels that we apply to ourselves. These are the identities that we claim (or sometimes aspire to), which often equates the groups of people with which we associate ourselves. So, I’m a husband, a father, a gamer, a Christian, a member of Imago Dei Church, a Peorian, and so on. This applies to work, too.

The weird thing, though, is that the label that a worker applies to himself isn’t necessarily that of the organization. More often, that label is his department or team. This isn’t always true, to be fair, but I think that it’s the norm. And it makes sense, if you think about it. Organizations rapidly get too big to be known. Your department or your team are more easily comprehended groups, simply because they’re smaller and composed of the people that you see every day. The fact that the larger organization is the context that makes that department or team possible ceases to matter. You aren’t an employee of “Company A”. You’re a member of the “IT Department at Company A”.

So, why does this matter?

Because tribalism very quickly produces into an “Us vs. Them” mentality. “We” are the friendly ones, and “They” are the bad people. Here’s the problem: the “They” that your tribe is opposing is often another department in the same organization. Rather than working together, the departments of an organization fight each other. And that’s a problem.

How do you fix this?

Some people would argue that you need to try to break down those tribal boundaries, to get people to apply the label of the larger organization to themselves. But I don’t think that you can effectively do this. Instead of fighting tribalism, I think the better answer is to channel it.

This happens in the military all the time. Consider all the strange unit insignia, like the Screaming Eagles of the 101st Airborne. Or think of particular uniforms, like green berets of U.S. Special Forces. These sorts of symbols reinforce tribalism by focusing on the specific unit or service to which you are dedicated. However, the culture of these units includes the idea of doing quality work in service to the larger cause of operational success.

Tribalism, managed well, can actually contribute to success. Because part of our identity as this tribe is doing well at what the organization needs us to do well. And, hey, if we’re also constantly saving the organization, then all the better. Because it’s what we do.

One of the stories about the 101st Airborne comes from the siege of Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge in World War II. The division was surrounded in the town of Bastogne, were outnumbered 5 to 1, were badly undersupplied, and yet fought bravely for eight days. When the German offer came to surrender, the acting commander of the division responded by saying, “Nuts!” (This was translated to the Germans as “You can all go to hell.”) And when Patton’s Third Army finally fought through and lifted the siege, many of the soldiers of the 101st denied that they had needed the help. Somehow, the Germans had them surrounded, and that’s exactly how they had wanted it.

That’s the power of tribalism at work.

(For a related take on this topic, Silos, Politics and Turf Wars by Patrick Lencioni. It’s been long enough since I’ve read it that I don’t remember exactly how it intersects with what I just wrote, but it’s a worthwhile read.)


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